Canada fire contained, but smoke delays oil production restart, and black bears prowl Fort McMurray town

The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown after being ravaged by a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 13, 2016.
The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown after being ravaged by a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on May 13, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

OTTAWA (AFP/REUTERS) - Firefighters have contained a massive wildfire in Canada's oil sands region, but thick smoke on Friday (May 20) continued to prevent a resumption of most oil production, and evacuees returning to the town of Fort McMurray next month may have to contend with black bears who have been prowling the streets in search of food.

The fires, which forced the evacuation of 100,000 residents of Fort McMurray and oil facilities to the north, interrupted extraction and refining of an estimated 1.2 million barrels of oil per day. The Canadian cutbacks have sent crude prices climbing towards the US$50 mark, by helping to reduce a global supply glut.

To compound the problems, black bears have wandered into the town in greater numbers since the wildfire, leaving behind trash cans, dumpsters, and even thawing freezers rife with food, the authorities said.

"They are smart and adaptive. They can smell food from kilometers away," said Mr Brendan Cox, a spokesman for the province's fish and wildlife enforcement branch. "Just as you and I go to the nearby grocery store, or our favorite restaurant, the bears continue to return to a particular food source."

The blaze, which has since swelled to more 500,000ha, destroyed neighborhoods, cut basic services, and heaped anxiety on a community already reeling from a two-year slump in global crude prices.

Some residents are due to return beginning June 1.

Adding to residents' concerns, the city is nestled among prime bear habitat in northern Alberta's lush boreal forests, said University of Alberta conservation biologist Lee Foote.

There are perhaps 40,000 bears in the province, many of which will be searching for food after a nearly six-month winter hibernation at just the time residents are returning home, Mr Foote said. Black bears can weigh 150kg.

A similar situation emerged after Canada's 2011 Slave Lake blaze, when a local fire crew noted in an online journal entry that the torched forest and tantalizing garbage "had lured the bears into the community".

Officials fatally shot more than 40 bears in the area, Mr Foote said.

In Fort McMurray, seven wildlife officials are patrolling for bears, cleaning up garage, and setting baited traps to capture animals that may be "habituated" to a food-rich area and likely to return and possibly pose a threat to humans, Mr Cox said. They have captured four bears so far, two of which they released back into the wild, and two which they euthanised, Mr Cox said.

"Officers feel the same distaste as members of the public feel for putting a bear down," Mr Cox said. While taking photographs of a charred hotel in Fort McMurray, Mr George Kourounis, who presents the Angry Planet television series, said he came within a few paces of a bear. "I spotted something moving out of the corner of my eye and that something was a great big black bear looking for food in this dumpster just outside the hotel," he said. "It was crazy."

Officials told a press conference that the fire is now in check and firefighters are confident they can hold it over the coming days, until it rains.

Before oil production can resume, however, the smoke must clear.

The two largest facilities, operated by Suncor and Syncrude, remain shuttered.

"They remain under mandatory evacuation," said Mr Shane Schreiber, head of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

"I can't see that being lifted until the air quality index becomes stable and until we get a couple more days of getting good firefighting done on that fire," he said.

Air pollution caused by the smoke has fallen but remains high after recently peaking at more than three times safe levels at the height of the emergency.

Bitumen processing at Suncor's base plant and production at its MacKay River facility were suspended after a total of 8,000 workers in the north were ordered out Monday as the fire spread and intensified, destroying a 665-room lodge.

Syncrude's Mildred Lake and Aurora oil sands sites were also evacuated.

Imperial Oil, meanwhile, said in a statement that it has resumed limited operations at its Kearl oil sands site, 70km north of Fort McMurray.

The bitumen mine is jointly owned by Exxon Mobil (29 per cent) and was producing nearly 200,000 barrels per day before the fires struck.

"We continue to have firefighters deployed closely around the oil sands operations and industrial camps," Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison said.

"The fire will take some time to put out, but we feel that given the current conditions and the number of firefighters we have there, there is no immediate threat (to the facilities)."

"Hopefully this weekend we'll see some much needed precipitation, but until then firefighters continue to dig in and hold the line around the community (of Fort McMurray) and protect critical infrastructure."

A trace amount of rain fell on Fort McMurray and its surroundings on Thursday. Heavier rains are forecast for the next three days.

"Longterm we're very optimistic, we continue to make very good progress there and everything continues to be well contained," Mr Morrison said.

There are currently 1,100 firefighters battling the blaze. Mr Morrison said the province hopes to bring in another 500 next week, and 500 more the following week.

Cost estimates, meanwhile, predict the loss to the Canadian economy due to the temporary oil sands production shutdown could reach 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

The oil sector accounts for four percent of Canada's gross domestic product.