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Smoke from wildfires fills the sky over Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday. On Monday morning, the air-quality-health index in Fort McMurray was determined to be 38, based on a scale of 1 to 10. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Smoke from wildfires fills the sky over Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday. On Monday morning, the air-quality-health index in Fort McMurray was determined to be 38, based on a scale of 1 to 10. (JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Major oil sands facilities, camps under mandatory evacuation order as fire rages Add to ...

Alberta has put major oil sands facilities and camps under a mandatory evacuation order as the wildfire that consumed part of Fort McMurray remains out of control.

All work camps and facilities north of Fort McMurray and south of Fort McKay are affected by the new order, issued late Monday evening. Suncor Energy Inc.’s base plant and Syncrude Canada Ltd.’s main operation fall into this evacuation perimeter. Suncor and Syncrude Canada said they have evacuated workers from the area under threat.

Suncor said it is transporting personnel from the camps to lodges that are further north and -- as a precautionary measure -- started "a staged and orderly shutdown of our base plant operations."

The company will restart operations only when it is safe to do so, it said.

Nineteen camps are under the mandatory evacuation order, although the government said some camps and facilities may be missing from its list. The evacuation orders cover roughly 8,000 people. About 90,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray and the surrounding area in the first week of May. They remain displaced.

In Fort McMurray itself, hundreds of firefighters along with dozens of pieces of heavy equipment were able to hold the line on Monday as the wall of flames grew. However, just west of the city’s sprawling northern suburb, a new inferno skirted the oil sands capital and raced north.

Just before 6 p.m. a defensive line erected by firefighters north of the city had to be abandoned as it was overwhelmed and flames leapt across a road.

“All evacuees are to head south on Highway 63 if possible,” the new evacuation order said. Highway 63 connects the oil sands projects to Fort McMurray and beyond. It is the only major road in and out of the northern city.

A precautionary evacuation order for a slew of camps came out earlier Monday, but did not include the major facilities. Some workers had already been bused away from camps and plants as a result of the original order. Some went north, looking for space in other camps.

Thousands of oil sands workers were part of the first wave of evacuations when the fire first licked the city in the first week of May. Oil sands employees were only recently allowed to return work sites and camps, restarting the facilities that had to be shutdown. The city remains under the original evacuation order.

Air quality has emerged as another significant hazard in Fort McMurray as teams try to secure the city for residents to return. On Monday morning, the air-quality-health index in Fort McMurray was determined to be 38, nearly four times greater than the level considered to be high risk. The scale usually runs from 1 to 10.

“It is a dynamic time right now,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said at an evening briefing about the ongoing wildfire situation on Monday. The press conference was prior to the new mandatory evacuation order.

The fire was moving at moving at about 40 metres a minute, or about 2.4 kilometres an hour, Monday afternoon. It was about five kilometres away from Fort McMurray’s Timberlea neighbourhood Monday afternoon.

Fire chief Darby Allen last week left Fort McMurray, saying the process was now in the recovery phase. There is currently no timeline for residents to return to Fort McMurray. The flames damaged roughly 2,400 structures in the city.

Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, earlier Monday said he was “fairly confident, fingers crossed, knock on wood” that the fire situation would not escalate in Fort McMurray, but that there was concern about oil and gas infrastructure.

Southeast of the city, industrial and provincial firefighters were working to hold back a fire near Enbridge’s Cheecham Terminal facility, including by widening existing firebreaks. A statement released by Enbridge on Monday said the terminal and pump station were designed with the possibility of forest fire in mind.

Speaking on Monday morning, Ms. Notley said electricity has been restored to most of Fort McMurray and the water-treatment plant is working again, though a boil-water order remains in effect. She said the landfill is back in operation, the airport is ready to resume commercial traffic and gas service has been restored to about half the city.

Thirty-two kilometres of fencing, amounting to about 100 truckloads, was expected to be in place around damaged or dangerous areas of the city by Wednesday.

About 400 people continue to clean the hospital, and Ms. Notley said the province is getting advice from health and emergency officials concerning what level of medical service should be in place before people return to the community. She said a facility similar to a “high-tech MASH unit” has been set up in outdoor tents, and there are plans to open the emergency room by the end of the month.

Provincial wildfire manager Chad Morrison said on Monday morning there were still thousands of hot spots in and around Fort McMurray and firefighters are expected to be “seriously challenged” in the next several days. Crews have made progress with more than 60 kilometres of fire breaks, he said, but there is still extreme fire behaviour around the western and northern edges of the blaze, as well as the potential for new starts and lightning fires in the hot, dry and windy conditions.

Firefighters were counting on a change in the weather. The area’s winds are expected to shift on Tuesday away from the oil sands facilities and towards thick boreal forests to the west.

There are 15 wildfires burning in the province, three of which are considered out of control. One prompted the evacuation of 100 to 200 people from a hamlet northwest of Edmonton.

With a file from Bertrand Marotte

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