Alberta, Canada – Fort McMurray wildfire in northern Alberta is carving a new path of destruction, destroying an oilsands camp while racing eastward toward more industry sites.
The fire, which has become known as “the beast,” grew by a staggering 57,000 hectares in the last 24 hours, consuming 423,000 hectares of boreal forest as of Wednesday morning.
Wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather attributes the “pretty significant” growth to “extreme fire conditions.”
“It’s really being burning intensely and the winds have been carrying it,” he said Wednesday.
The fire forced 8,000 non-essential workers to flee the area Monday night, and a mandatory evacuation order remains in place for all work camps north of the city.
The majority were sent by ground to work camps near Fort MacKay, about 53 kilometres to the north. But some were also bused, or later flown, south to Edmonton and Calgary.
By Tuesday morning, the flames had made their way to the Blacksand Executive Lodge, which provides accommodations to hundreds of workers in the area.
The building’s sprinkler system was no match for the raging inferno, and all 665 units of the building were consumed by the fire.
Within hours, the flames had spread east, threatening the Noralta Lodge Fort McMurray Village, a facility that can house more than 3,000 people, and Horizon North’s Birch Mountain, a 540-unit facility.
Noralta officials took to social media Tuesday night to say the fire had been held back, but the site was still at risk and crews would be working through the night to protect the facility.
The wind was also expected to push the fire towards the Suncor and Syncrude oilsands facilities, but the province said both are highly resilient to fire.
Each site is surrounded by wide barriers of cleared firebreak and gravel and are guarded by their own firefighting crews. However, only essential personnel remain at both plants.
Crews in the area continue to work around the clock to douse the flames and create firebreaks around critical infrastructure, but the fire has become increasingly volatile amid high winds and tinder-dry conditions.
“Over the last 48 hours it has certainly grown significantly, particularly along the eastern edge, growing toward the Saskatchewan border, but also growing north toward the oilsands facilities,” said Bruce Macnab, with the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton.
“In these kind of conditions, the fire crews will be doing their best to fight the sides of the fire when conditions allow, but that’s very much weather dependent.