10 May 2016

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Canada — Alberta’s raging wildfire is growing slower than expected and has yet to reach Saskatchewan, Premier Rachel Notley said on Sunday, offering one of the first signs of good news from the fire-scorched oilsands region.

Officials estimate the fire to now cover 1,610 square kilometres, an area about double the size of New York City. That’s about 100 square kilometres larger than it was on Saturday, but 400 square kilometres smaller than officials feared it might reach.

The flames continued to burn eastwards Sunday and were about 20 to 40 kilometres from Saskatchewan’s border by the afternoon, Notley told reporters during a news conference

The premier expressed cautious optimism as she delivered an update on Sunday, crediting firefighters and first responders for their tireless work.

“The fire is quite a bit smaller than we had feared,” Notley said. “What an amazing job you’ve done.”

She added that all 25,000 people who fled to oil camps north of Fort McMurray earlier in the week have been safely transported south in highway convoys and by air.

About 3,000 people were evacuated from nearby Fort MacKay as a precaution, and 1,500 Syncrude employees were also moved on Saturday.

The premier choked back tears as she expressed sadness over evacuees unable to celebrate Mother’s Day at home.

“I’m hoping for a few minutes with my own children. That not all of us can do that is definitely an awful tragedy.”

Two people have died since the wildfire broke out. Emily Ryan, 15, and her stepmother’s nephew, Aaron Hodgson, were killed in a car accident Wednesday as they tried to flee the area and crashed into a tractor trailer.

The premier plans to travel to Fort McMurray on Monday and will allow a small group of journalists inside the city for the first time since the blaze broke out. She said images from the town may be hard to watch and reminded residents that mental health services are available.

“There will be some dramatic images coming from media over the next couple of days,” she said.

Exclusive video obtained by CTV News on Sunday shows the extent of the devastation inside Fort McMurray. Pickup trucks are seen torched, with rubber and paint burned off their frames. Entire neighbourhoods are shown burned to the ground. In some areas, devastated homes stand beside leafy trees that appear untouched by fire.

Notley said the city is mostly cleared of active fires but firefighters remain on the scene in case of unexpected flare-ups. Officials say that about 80 per cent of all homes and buildings are still standing.

The premier says she’ll meet with energy industry leaders soon and will provide an update Tuesday on the wildfire’s impact on the oil sector. At least six surface mines have been closed in the region, cutting an estimated 1 million barrels of oil out of daily production.

Notley said Fort McMurray is now being used by first-responders as a base camp to fight the blaze as it tears through dry boreal forest in the northeast.

Chad Morrison with Alberta Wildfire echoed the premier’s optimistic message in a Sunday briefing and pointed out that the fire is moving away from populated areas.

“For the wildfire stuff, out in the forested area, that’s going to take us a long time to clean up. But I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress, especially in the community,” Morrison said.

Brief showers, cool temperatures

Fort McMurray saw about 10 minutes of showers Sunday morning, but nowhere near enough to deter the blaze. Environment Canada is forecasting a low of 6 C in Fort McMurray and a 70 per cent chance of showers Sunday evening.

But the cold front will likely be preceded by strong winds gusting up to 70 km/h, which officials fear could fan the flames.

The wildfire prompted the first evacuation orders on Sunday, May 1. It has since grown to 20 times its original size and forced more than 80,000 residents to flee.

The massive blaze will likely take weeks to extinguish, officials say.

‘End is not in sight’

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told CTV’s Question Period that “there is no best guess” for when the fire might be contained.

“At this point, it’s big, it’s out of control, it’s growing, it’s dangerous and the end is not in sight,” he said.

About 1,100 firefighters are battling the blaze, and fire departments across the country are offering their assistance. Eighty firefighters from Ontario and 66 personnel from Quebec and New Brunswick have been sent in to help out Alberta’s exhausted fire crews.

“This is a beast of a fire and it needs the most professional fighters to contend with it,” Goodale said. “This is a very serious, long-term recovery effort.”

Officials say the wildfire has destroyed 1,600 structures in the city, but Goodale said many more are likely damaged from the smoke.

The minister said that crews will have to assess the health risks of the smoke left behind before anyone can return to Fort McMurray.

Growing support for evacuees

Luckily, there has been no lack of support for those affected by the fire.

On Sunday, the Red Cross reported that Canadians across the country have donated more than $46 million to relief efforts since the start of the crisis. The federal government and the Alberta government have committed to match the donations.

Many are also offering essentials such as food, water and gas to the evacuees. Most communities along the province’s highways are even offering to house some evacuees.

Local businesses, celebrities, sports teams and large corporations have also contributed hundreds of thousands to relief efforts.

The Alberta government also has plans to help evacuees with other needs, such as medical prescriptions and schooling for children.

Feds to absorb cost according to agreement

Goodale said the exact cost of the damage caused by the fire has not yet been determined, but said it “will be calculated in the billions.”

Severe flooding in Calgary and other parts of southern Alberta in 2013 ended up costing about $6 billion. The minister said the combined cost of the emergency response, the property damage and the slowdown in Canada’s oil industry due to the wildfire will “far exceed” that of the Alberta floods.

Goodale said the federal government will cover the cost of the fire based on the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangement (DFAA).

The federal-provincial cost-sharing agreement requires Ottawa to cover a percentage of the damage based on the per capita cost on those affected by the disaster. Given the severity of the Fort McMurray fires, Goodale said the federal government will likely absorb 90 per cent of expenses.

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