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New evacuations around fire-struck Canadian city in energy heartland (Update 3)

Officers look on as smoke from Fort McMurray's raging wildfires billow into the air after their city was evacuated

By Rod Nickel

A massive wildfire near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, that has grown to five times its initial size has spread south, forcing more evacuations on Thursday after 88,000 people fled the city in the nation’s energy heartland.

The uncontrolled fire, which has consumed swathes of the city, has shut oil production in the area, driving up global oil prices and affecting projects and pipelines across the heavily forested region.

Officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for the Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation communities, located about 50 km south of the battered city of Fort McMurray, which was evacuated Tuesday.

At least 640,000 barrels per day of crude output is offline, according to Reuters calculations, roughly 16 per cent of Canada’s crude production. The outage is expected to climb as major players in the region cut production.

Conoco Phillips said it was evacuating its small 30,000-barrel-per-day Surmont project, south of Fort McMurray.

The winds also pushed flames toward the local airport, with web cam images showing black smoke engulfing the airport late on Wednesday evening. Officials confirmed that a hotel north of main terminal had caught fire.

Officials on the scene were forced to evacuate a make-shift emergency operations centre for the second time in less than a day, and the spreading flames threatened community centres feeding and housing evacuees from Fort McMurray.

Fire has intermittently blocked the only route south toward major cities, so thousands of evacuees drove north toward oil sands facilities and a few small settlements but no route out.

The forecast has called for cooler temperatures and a possibility of rain, offering hope that controlling the blaze could become easier.

Authorities said there had been no known casualties from the blaze itself, but fatalities were reported in at least one vehicle crash along the evacuation route.

Thousands bunked down for the night on Wednesday in arenas, hockey rinks and oil work camps that were often short of fuel and food.

Fire also threatened the airport, and web cam images showed black smoke engulfing the area late Wednesday evening. Officials confirmed that a hotel north of the main terminal had caught fire, but as the sun rose on Thursday new images of the airport showed no obvious damage.

Firefighters have been unable to stop the wildfire, which has charred 18,500 acres (7,500 hectares) since it erupted on Sunday and exploded in ferocity.

“It is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town,” Scott Long, an official with Alberta’s emergency management agency said.

Hot, dry, windy weather has made the massive wildfire all but impossible to control. The entire city of Fort McMurray was ordered to evacuate on Tuesday, and some 1,600 structures have been destroyed, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said on Wednesday.

Temperatures hit 31 degrees Celsius (88°F) on Wednesday. But on Thursday, Environment Canada forecast a high of 19 degrees Celsius (66°F) with a 30 percent chance of rain. The average high in the area is 15 degrees Celsius.

A government forecast map of potential fire intensity still showed some areas around Fort McMurray at class 6, the highest level.

Late Wednesday, the regional government fielded questions on Twitter from frightened evacuees north of the city, asking when they would be able to drive south, and whether areas north of the city were safe.

“We haven’t forgotten about you and you’re safe,” said the government on Twitter.

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