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Cool weather, rain to aid in fight against fire threatening Fort McMurray

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Cooler temperatures and calmer winds have helped subdue the wildfire threatening Fort McMurray, a relief to firefighters bracing for a prolonged battle with the flames.

Four neighbourhoods on the southwest edge of the oilsands hub remain evacuated as the fire continues to burn mere kilometres from the community. 

The order to leave came Tuesday as the fire nearly doubled in size, chasing 6,600 people out of their homes.

The fire continues to burn out of control along the south side of the Athabasca River valley, less than six kilometres from the outskirts of the community.

Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Christie Tucker said Thursday the fire threatening Fort McMurray didn’t grow overnight but moved slightly north toward the Athabasca River.

A new scan of the fire has determined that it has burned 19,820 hectares, slightly fewer than had been assessed previously, Tucker said. Officials said the smaller figure doesn’t mean the fire is shrinking but reflects a more accurate measurement following new aerial scans of the area.

She said weather conditions should aid in the firefighting effort.

“Winds from the east and rain showers are expected,” Tucker said. “It will give firefighters a chance to make further progress containing the fire.” 

Tucker said the fire remains 5.5 km from the municipal landfill on the outskirts of Fort McMurray and less than five km from the intersection of Highway 63 and Highway 881, the only roads leading south.

Tucker said the fire remains active and the risk across much of the province remains extreme.

She urged vigilance, asking Albertans to do all they can to prevent new fires from sparking, especially as many enjoy the outdoors over the long weekend. 

“Even if there’s a little rain on the ground, let’s not forget that we have been in a drought situation here in this province for a year or more,” Tucker told reporters Thursday. “There are areas in the north of the province that have long term, dried-out fuels.

“A little bit of rain does not mean that there is a zero chance of starting a wildfire.” 

People under evacuation from Fort McMurray have been told they will be out of their homes until Tuesday, maybe longer. Officials have said the weather will dictate how the fire moves, and when it is safe to return.

Thursday’s forecast calls for an afternoon high of 11 C and up to 20 millimetres of rain before nightfall. Periods of rain and cooler temperatures are expected to continue through Monday.

“I’ve woken up to what appear to be really favourable conditions,” Fort McMurray firefighter Mark Stephenson said in an interview Thursday morning.

“It’s raining out. The ground is wet. And it’s cooler today.

“I’m hoping for a good day for Fort McMurray.” 

On Wednesday a smaller fire was detected three km north of Fort McMurray. As of Thursday morning, it was less than one hectare in size and posed no threat to the community.  As of Thursday morning, the fire was being held. 

The neighbourhoods of Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace make up the evacuation zone, where firefighters are now at work.

An evacuation alert remains in place for the remainder of the city and many surrounding communities, with residents on orders to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.

In the areas most at risk, crews are clearing any debris that might catch a spark and dousing homes and businesses with fire retardant. Soakers, studded with cannons that can blast enough water into fire-threatened ditches to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 90 minutes, are part of the effort.

“The system was designed after 2016,” said Derek Sommerville, a wildfire specialist with the Alberta company Fire and Flood Emergency Services.

“We can cover large distances. That frees up traditional mobile resources like fire trucks and helicopters to deal with higher priority areas.”

The hoses, six kilometres of them, powered by a battery of 600-horsepower pumps, are an example of how Alberta seems better prepared to face such threats than it was eight years ago.

“They’re definitely a little better prepared with the notices that came out,” said David Warwick, a resident of one of the evacuated neighbourhoods.

An aerial view of a wildfire. Smoke is visible on the horizon.
The wildfire threatening Fort McMurray grew rapidly on Monday, fueled by shifting winds. (Alberta Wildfire)

This is the second time Fort McMurray, a city of 68,000, has been forced to flee the flames. In 2016, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and forced 80,000 out of the city and surrounding area.

Stephenson watched his own home burn in 2016 . As his wife and children evacuated to safety this week, he remained behind to again fight the flames.

After the 2016 fire, he recovered a few small belongings from the wreckage of his home, including his son’s piggy bank. His son took the keepsake with him when he left Fort McMurray with his mother on Tuesday.

Stephenson said knowing that his family is safe helps him focus on the task ahead, one he feels crews are better prepared for this time. 

The strength and expertise of the emergency response has increased while the the strength of this fire pales in comparison, he said. 

“I’m hopeful that none of our neighbourhoods are going to be touched.” 

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