NEWS
05/17/2016 21:09 EDT | Updated 05/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Alberta reviews Fort McMurray wildfire re-entry plan as flames spread north

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Wildfires menacing Fort McMurray carved a new path of destruction Tuesday, destroying an oilsands work camp to the north and forcing reconstruction staff out of the evacuated city.

On top of that, the process of restoring natural gas was dealt a setback when a home in an area that was getting service back blew up Monday night, destroying the house and damaging six others beside it.

Premier Rachel Notley said the developments underscore the volatility of the situation and have forced a re-evaluation of plans to get residents back to their homes.

"Safety will be and must be our first and principle priority," Notley told a news conference in Edmonton. "I hope to have more to say about our specific re-entry plans within the week."

Scott Long, with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said the cause of the house explosion is under investigation.

He said Atco gas workers — who have turned gas on to about 60 per cent of the structures in Fort McMurray — have left the city due to the fire threat and will use the pause to determine what caused the blast. 

"If they have to change protocol, they will," said Long.

There was also a fire Monday night in a separate neighbourhood that damaged three condo units in a complex. Long said that, too, is under investigation.

About 400 people working around the clock to get the Fort McMurray hospital open again were also pulled out as a precaution.

The plan to get some retail business owners into the city early to ready essentials like grocery stores and pharmacies is also on hold due to deteriorating air quality.

More than 80,000 residents have now been out of their homes for two weeks after the entire city of Fort McMurray was ordered evacuated May 3 when wildfires overwhelmed crews and swept through some neighbourhoods, destroying 2,400 buildings — many of them homes.

That's about 10 per cent of the city. However critical infrastructure, including the hospital, water treatment plant, and the airport, remain intact.

The fires moved north late Monday forcing about 8,000 oilsands workers lodged in a number of camps to flee. Most went north but some headed south.

On Tuesday morning, Notley confirmed the blaze destroyed a 655-unit work camp and was threatening two others.

By Tuesday evening, one of those camps, Noralta Lodge, was reporting on Twitter that the fire was being held off the village site and there was no structural damage, but the facility was still considered at risk.

The tweet said crews were to remain overnight to keep the fire under control.

Rod Graham, president of Horizon North, which owns the levelled Blacksand Executive Lodge, said the facility was fully insured and could be rebuilt in about six months.

It was distressing deja vu for many workers who had fled the fire before and returned in recent days to get production running again.

Jeff George, a 51-year-old Suncor worker, was moved to another camp further north. He can't wait for life to get back to normal, he said, but is resigned to waiting it out in comfort with great food and air conditioning, pool tables and dart boards.

Planes were available to evacuate workers again if necessary, he added.

"It's bad but it's not as bad for us as I think people think," said George. "They're keeping everybody out of the way and safe ... We've just got to be patient and hopefully we'll get out of here soon."

The evacuation zone, stretching about 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray to just south of Fort MacKay, included Syncrude and Suncor facilities, along with several smaller operations.

Notley said the focus of firefighting efforts would be protecting other work camps.

Mark Little, executive vice-president of Suncor, issued a tweet to employees late Tuesday night assuring them that the fire was southwest of the facility "and we have protection strategies in place to safeguard our assets."

"What a crazy time it's been," he told them. "I know many of you are in difficult circumstances given your temporary accommodations and in some cases, dealing with a loss of your personal property. Hang in there — we will get through this."

He said emergency response teams were still on site at the company's MacKay River, East Tank Fram and base plant facilities, while its Firebag location was on "hot standby with minimal staffing." He said a strategy was in place to evacuate those people as necessary.

Syncrude CEO Mark Ward, meanwhile, held a meeting with several hundred employees in Edmonton on Tuesday afternoon and assured them there would be no layoffs because of the fire situation, and everyone would continue being paid.

Suncor also told workers they would receive their normal pay on May 12, and their base salary on May 26.

High winds have spurred the quickly spreading wildfire as tinder-dry conditions persist in the region.

"Weather conditions will make this work extremely challenging. Westerly winds will push the fire closer to Suncor and Syncrude, but we expect very high resiliency with both of those facilities," said Notley. 

The wildfire had grown to about 3,550 square kilometres and was expected to reach the Saskatchewan boundary Tuesday.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton, with files from Chris Purdy in Edmonton