By Rod Nickel and Liz Hampton
A wildfire ripping through Canada’s oil sands region blazed for a seventh day on Sunday as officials warned almost 100,000 people who fled the area that they would not be returning home soon.
The fire, which started at 6 p.m. eastern (2200 GMT) last Sunday near the town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, spread so quickly that the town’s 88,000 inhabitants barely had time to leave. Large parts of the town no longer exist.
Cooler weather and a chance of rain were forecast for Sunday, but government forecasts for potential fire intensity showed much of the area at the highest possible level.
Officials said that, even though the fire had largely pushed through Fort McMurray and was heading quickly northeast through dry boreal forests, the town was still too dangerous to enter.
“Within the community itself I expect over the next coming month or two that they’re going to be able to get a very good handle on the fire situation,” Alberta wildfire prevention chief Chad Morrison told reporters on Saturday.
Thousands of evacuees are camped out in nearby towns but stand little chance of returning soon. Provincial officials said displaced people would be better off driving to cities like Calgary, 655 km (410 miles) to the south, where health and social services are better.
After the scare of her life escaping the fire on Tuesday, housekeeping supervisor Susie Demelo got some welcome good news on Saturday. New satellite images showed the house she rents in Fort McMurray was still standing.
Demelo and her partner have no insurance on their belongings.
“I’m very blessed and grateful,” she said. “And nobody has died in the fire.”
Some residents are complaining about the lack of news from the town, fire chief Darby Allen said in a video posted online late on Saturday.
“We know from all the calls that you’re getting frustrated because you don’t have any information on your homes. We’re really working hard on that, it’s a complicated process,” he said.
The inferno looks set to become the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history. One analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).
Fort McMurray is the center of Canada’s oil sands region. About half of the crude output from the sands, or one million barrels per day, had been taken offline as of Friday, according to a Reuters estimate.
An Alberta government statement issued on Saturday night said the fire had consumed 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) – an area the size of Mexico City – and would continue to grow.
More than 500 firefighters are in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters, 14 air tankers and 88 other pieces of equipment, officials said.
The strain was so intense that fire crews would be rotated more quickly than usual, Morrison said. One exhausted fireman told CBC television that members of his team were working up to 40 hours without sleep.