Canada's fire-ravaged Fort McMurray works to restore utilities

A woman takes photos of the burned remains of a house.
A woman takes photos of the burned remains of a house.PHOTO: REUTERS
A burned out truck is seen during a media tour of the fire-damaged city of Fort McMurray on May 9, 2016.
A burned out truck is seen during a media tour of the fire-damaged city of Fort McMurray on May 9, 2016.PHOTO: AFP
Fort McMurray is still 90 per cent intact despite a week of damage from the wildfires.
Fort McMurray is still 90 per cent intact despite a week of damage from the wildfires.PHOTO: AFP

FORT MCMURRAY, Canada (AFP) - Crews worked on Tuesday to start restoring water and electricity in this Canadian oil hub turned into a ghost town by a towering ring of fire that reduced its suburbs to ashes.

Government authorities, meanwhile, met with oil company executives in the oil sands region of unseasonably dry Alberta province to discuss how to get evacuated workers back on the job and production up and running again.

Oil is the lifeblood of the region's economy, and the fires raging around Fort McMurray for the past 10 days or so have led to a 40 per cent drop in output.

Oil facilities have escaped major damage so far. But fires are still burning and officials said the main task is to keep them contained around those plants so workers can be flown back in.

Fire fighters using heavy machinery have cleared away swaths of forest around the oil facilities to keep the fire from spreading into them.

A ride through Fort McMurray showed the center of the now-empty city of 100,000 came out of the disaster largely intact. But the suburbs, where some people got just a half hour's notice to evacuate a week ago, were singed.

The outlying areas are now a ruined, scorched landscape dotted with the odd survivor, like an elementary school here or a bus stop shelter there, coated in soot but still standing.

Plots of land where houses once stood are now separated by melted, twisted skeletons of metal fences.

Neat, nicely kept neighbourhoods - with single-family homes, yards with swing sets and houses for dogs - are pretty much gone.

 

Outside one lot, a totally charred bike lies in the driveway of what had been a house. All that's left is a disfigured stove, covered in rubble and leaning against a blackened wall.

Fires are stilling burning to the east of the city. And the tally of how much land was charred now stands at 2,230 sq km, with 2,400 homes and other buildings destroyed.

As one approaches the city from the south on Highway 63, the lush green grass of springtime quickly gives way to scorched trees whose foliage went up in flames.

Still, it could have been much, much, worse, said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

"The city was surrounded by an ocean of fire only a few days ago. But Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have been saved and they will be rebuilt," she said Monday night.

"I've never seen anything like this," said city fire chief Darby Allen. "If that fire had gotten into the downtown, we would have lost the downtown area."

Inside the city, electrical utility crews got to work replacing wooden poles burned away by the fire, so they get power lines back up.

It will be at least two weeks before people can start returning to their homes, if they still have one, said Allen.