Canada wildfires

Alberta inferno set to double in size

Huge plumes of smoke rising from the fire near Fort McMurray. More than 80,000 people have fled as the flames razed entire neighbourhoods.
Huge plumes of smoke rising from the fire near Fort McMurray. More than 80,000 people have fled as the flames razed entire neighbourhoods.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Massive blaze could become costliest disaster in nation's history

TORONTO/CALGARY • Wildfires ravaging the centre of Canada's oil patch in northern Alberta and forcing more than 80,000 to flee are set to double in size over the weekend.

There is "high potential" that the fire could spread to 2,000 sq km, Mr Chad Morrison, a senior wildfire manager for the Alberta government, said yesterday.

That is almost three times the size of Singapore.

Firefighters were on the defensive, striving to protect the communities of Gregoire Lake, Anzac and Fort McMurray First Nation. The ferocity of the fire was unprecedented, Mr Morrison said.

"This is an extreme, rare fire event that is something that is historic for us," Mr Morrison said earlier at a press conference in Edmonton, flanked by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and a brigadier general from Canada's military.

UNPRECEDENTED

This is an extreme, rare fire event that is something that is historic for us...There is no amount of resources we are going to be able to put on this fire that can hold it.

MR CHAD MORRISON, a senior wildfire manager for the Alberta government.

"There is no amount of resources we are going to be able to put on this fire that can hold it."

Disruptions to oil production, the lifeblood of Alberta's economy, add to a human catastrophe, as blazes razed entire neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, the gateway to the world's third-largest crude reserves.

As many as 25,000 of Fort McMurray's evacuated residents had gone north to oil-sands work camps before the fires overtook the town, cutting them off from the rest of the country.

With the work camps now considered unsafe, some 8,000 people were airlifted out last Thursday, according to Agence-France Presse.

Police began escorting convoys of 50 vehicles at a time through the fire zone on Friday morning to get the remaining people to safety in towns south of the city.

Mr Sam Osterhagen, a welder who was working near the oil hub, spent the bulk of his 40th birthday in the convoy, after lining up early in the morning.

He and his co-workers had been stuck for the previous three nights at a campsite north of the town, watching as the fires burned. They said it looked like an orange ball glowing in the distance, with flames up to 70m hight.

"I didn't think I was going to make it," Mr Osterhagen said after stopping with his buddies to grab a burger at Wally's Fast Food in Grasslands on Highway 55, about halfway from Fort McMurray to Edmonton. It had taken them seven hours to drive a distance that would normally take two.

Passing through Fort McMurray, the men could see vast swathes of burned-out forest and homes and buildings destroyed, though the downtown seemed to be intact, they said.

The smoke was thick in the air and embers glowed in the burned brush along the roadside until they got well south of town, they said.

"They are dealing with an absolute beast of a fire; it's one of the worst we've ever seen," Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said at a press conference in Toronto. "The situation is still evolving, it's still very dangerous."

The inferno around Fort McMurray may become the costliest catastrophe in the country's history, with insurance losses potentially reaching C$9.4 billion (S$9.9 billion).

Bank of Montreal (BMO) cut its second-quarter gross domestic product growth estimate to zero from 1.5 per cent, citing "severe disruptions to oil production" due to the fires.

BMO said the estimate was a place-holder, dependent on receiving more information on the scope of the disaster.

The economic cost of the disaster is "unquantifiable", Mr Goodale said, but it will be "far-reaching and deep".

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Alberta inferno set to double in size'. Print Edition | Subscribe