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Shock and horror continues to unfold in Fort McMurray as 1 million bpd of oil comes offline

Shock and horror continues to unfold in Fort McMurray as 1 million bpd of oil comes offline

EDITOR'S NOTE:
  • A list of evacuation centres are posted on the Government of Alberte website (LINK).
  • Real-time updates on fire damage can be found on the municipality of Wood Buffalo website (LINK).
  • Those looking to provide assistance are being asked to donate to the Red Cross (LINK). The federal and provincial governments will be matching donations dollar for dollar.

The horror in Fort McMurray continues to unfold today as an out-of-control wild fires engulfs the city.

The fire is encroaching from the west, wiping out the neighbourhoods of Beacon Hill, Waterways and the Centennial Trailer Park. The entire city of Fort McMurray is now under an evacuation order, with an estimated 80,000 residents on the move. An estimated 1,600 homes and structures have been reported damaged so far.

Transport Alberta is asking people to stay off Highway 63 and Highway 881 due to heavy smoke and fire. Highway 63 is the main artery between Edmonton and Fort McMurray and was open southbound to Edmonton for much of the day. The municipality of Wood Buffalo is reporting that Highway 63 was shutdown in both directions late in the afternoon. Highway 881 is a smaller bypass road that runs through the hamlet of Conklin. 

Residents are instead being asked to flee north to the oil sands camps. Syncrude made their Noralta lodge available to the evacuated residents, but many of those lodges reported being full this morning. Syncrude is reportedly winding down their Mildred Lake operation to support the safe evacuation of their employees.

Shell is evaluating employees from their airstrips and shutting in production at the Muskeg River and Jackpine mines 100 km north of Fort McMurray. Shell has also made their Albian Village camp available to evacuees.

Suncor's Base Plant is the closest plant to Fort McMurray, located just 20 km north of the city. Although the operation is not affected by the fire, Suncor is also reducing output at the base plant and reducing to essential staff only. Updates can be found on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

WestJet is working with Suncor to evacuate their employees from the company's private air strip. The Fort McMurray airport suspended all commercial flights just before noon.

The closure of Albian, Syncrude and Suncor's mining facilities will take almost 900,000 bbl/day of upgraded light oil offline. None of the oil sands mines are located near the fire-affected zones.

Fly-in-fly out operations to the far north of the city such as CNRL's Horizon are reportedly operating normally. CNRL has made 800 camp rooms available for anyone needing shelter and but began evacuated non-essential employees Thursday morning. Imperial Oil's Kearl Lake facility is running at reduced throughput and evacuated non-essential staff. Camp operator Horizon North Logistics has also opened the Blacksand Lodge to anyone needing a place to stay.

Inter Pipeline temporarily shutdown their Polaris pipeline on Wednesday but announced the line was back in service on Thursday afternoon. Enbridge has also begun shutting down diluent pipelines in and out of the Fort McMurray area. Keyera has evacuated the Cheecham terminal south of Fort McMurray. Husky Energy is reducing production at the Sunrise thermal in-situ facility due to lack of diluent. In-situ operators produce a heavy crude which requires diluent (or condensate) for transportation. Suncor also announced it will be curtailing production at its Firebag in-situ facility due to lack of diluent. Both Sunrise and FIrebag are located 110 km north of Fort McMurray. 

In-situ operators located to the south of the city were largely unaffected on Wednesday but shifting winds have caused some to started shutting in production. ConocoPhillips announced the shutdown their Surmont facility. Statoil's Leismer is also cutting production in half due to diluent shortages. SAGD operations at Cenovus and MEG Energy near Christina Lake are so far not affected, although Cenovus is reduced to essential staff only.

A large proportion of the evacuees are headed south. Edmonton is a 5 hour drive to the south with only a couple of gas stations along the way. Alberta Transportation is sending refuelling tankers from Edmonton to help those who ran out of gas on their way out of the city. Fuel is also being trucked in from the oil sands camps to the north, who have their own fuel reserve tanks. There are no oil refineries in Fort McMurray but a couple of upgraders that produce diesel for internal consumption. All of the city's fuel is trucked in from Edmonton refineries.

The province has made a formal request for military assistance from the federal government, but help is still 2 days away. Edmonton and Calgary have sent firefights. Ontario is sending firefighters, equipment and support staff. BC is providing water pumps and hoses but is unable to send firefighters since the province is battling its own forest fires in the NE corner of the province. Quebec will be sending 4 Bombardier water bombers.

No injuries or casualties have been reported from the fire except for 2 road fatalities that occurred on Highway 881. The Fort McMurray hospital has also been completely evacuated with about 100 patients air-lifted to Edmonton.

The entire neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, home to about 2,000 residents is pretty much destroyed. Fire has destroyed 50% of the larger Abasand neighbourhood, home to almost 5,000 people. The downtown area remains largely unaffected so far. A cold front from should pass through tomorrow but winds are expected to remain strong. Most of Alberta and parts of western Saskatchewan are under an Extreme Fire advisory due to an unseasonably warm and dry winter this year.

Updates can be found on the Government of Alberta and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo websites. Latest breaking updates on social media can be found under the twitter hashtag #ymmfire.

The region of Wood Buffalo and the city Fort McMurray are no strangers to wildfires. The last major fire occurred in June of 2009, where a wildfire 80 km north of Lac La Biche shutdown Highway 63. The Mariana Lake wildfire of 1995 obliterated 40,000 hectares of boreal forest 100 km south of Fort McMurray and shutdown Highway 63 for about 5 days. The current blaze was estimated at 10,000 hectares of forest area yesterday, but upgraded to 85,000 hectares on Thursday morning. That's roughly the size of Calgary.

The last major fire to hit Alberta was the Slave Lake fire in 2011. About 9,000 residents were evacuated and 500 buildings were lost.

Fort McMurray is Alberta's fifth largest municipality home to an estimated 80,000 people.

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