Aerial and ground firefighters in northeastern Alberta, Canada, got some help from nature over the weekend in their struggle to steer burning from a massive, out-of-control wildfire that has forced the evacuation of 100,000.
Cooler temperatures and some rain aided the battle against the Horse River wildfire, which since May 1 has burned more than 620 sq mi (1,610 sq km), destroyed more than 1,600 homes and businesses and prompted a mandatory evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’s oil sands region.
Back-to-back cold fronts that brought cool air and rain "is great firefighting weather," said Chad Morrison, a senior wildfire manager with Alberta’s ministry of agriculture and forestry said May 8. "We can really get in there and get a death grip on this fire."
But ministry officials warned that the fire could burn for months. Nearly 30 wildfires are burning in the province of Alberta, and two others are considered out of control.
The Horse River fire attack force includes more than 360 firefighters, 20 helicopters (including four heavy ones) and 15 air tankers. Its units are focused on protecting the 80% of Fort McMurray-area homes that are still standing and critical infrastructure in the area and limiting the wildfire’s spread, according to the ministry’s firefighting bureau, known as Alberta Wildfire.
Over the weekend, the growth of the fire to Fort McMurray’s northeast abated, but the burning extended significantly to the north and southeast, Alberta Wildfire said in a May 8 update. With strong and gusty winds brought by the cold fronts, it said, "the fire behavior is still expected to be extreme and firefighters will be deployed in safe areas."
The Canadian energy companies Suncor and Syncrude decided May 7 to shut down oil-sands production facilities north of Fort McMurray and evacuate nonessential personnel. The Horse River fire reportedly has impacted one quarter of Canada’s oil production.
The helicopters fighting that fire include those of Phoenix Heli-Flight, which is based in Fort McMurray.