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Canada Fort McMurray firefighter numbers to double over next two weeks

A Canadian flag flies over damage caused by a wildfire, which prompted the mass evacuation of over 88,000 people, in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 14, 2016.

© Handout . / Reuters/Reuters

The number of firefighters battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray will nearly double over the next two weeks.

They will arrive in two waves, starting with 500 people next week and another 500 the week after that, provincial wildfire manager Chad Morrison said Friday. About 1,100 firefighters are currently on the scene.

Alberta waited until now to bring in reinforcements because they needed more safe spots to work. The cooler weather and potential rain in the forecast make it possible to add crews, he said.

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"We'll have the ability to put more boots on the ground in safe places and continue to really dig into this fire," Mr. Morrison told reporters. "We want to make sure that we're putting them in the right spots as well because there still will be extreme fire conditions" if the weather does not co-operate in the coming weeks.

The wildfire has chewed through more than 5,000 square kilometres, making it the third-largest blaze in Alberta's history. It jumped into Saskatchewan west of La Loche on Thursday, but wildfire officials in that province said the smoke and fire are being pushed back toward Alberta.

The additional 1,000 firefighters arriving over the next two weeks will come from Alberta crews that were previously deployed on other blazes in the province that have since been contained. Personnel from other parts of Canada will also join the effort. International firefighters may come if there are not enough available crews in the country.

On Friday, Fort McMurray business owners expressed frustration with a lack of detail on when they can return to the city to be ready for the expected influx of residents on June 1, as spelled out this week by the provincial government. The Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, in a letter to Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee, said its members have to ready supermarkets, hardware stores and fuel stations, and require a timetable for when they can safely do that.

The chamber also urged Ms. Larivee to devise a plan for bridge financing to carry businesses through the early stages of restarting operations.

"Employees will need to be compensated their work and currently many of our businesses have lost the ability to provide this," chamber president Bryce Kumka wrote. "Bridge financing and provincial supports for business will be an integral piece of the resources that will be required in our community during the rebuild."

The fire has forced roughly 90,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray and surrounding areas since May 3. The province has issued roughly 35,000 debit cards valued at a collective $75-million to evacuees as part of its support programs, an official said Friday.

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Meanwhile, a "multi-structure fire" in Fort McMurray destroyed more property Thursday morning and is under investigation. Roughly 2,400 structures in Fort McMurray have been destroyed or damaged and about a dozen in the village of Anzac have been destroyed as well. An oil-sands work camp north of the city has been torched, and the mandatory evacuation zone this week was expanded to cover Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc.'s major oil-sands operations. Imperial Oil Ltd. has restarted limited operations at its Kearl oil sands mine.

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