|Burned ground surrounds a sign welcoming visitors to Fort McMurray during a media tour of the fire-damaged Alberta city on Monday, May 9, 2016. A break in the weather has officials optimistic they've reached a turning point on getting a handle on the massive wildfire. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP)|
FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (AP) — Alberta's premier has declared Canada's oil sands city has been largely saved and said a plan will be put together within two weeks so most of the 88,000 evacuees can return to their homes.
At least two neighborhoods in Fort McMurray became scenes of utter devastation with incinerated homes leveled by a wildfire that the city's fire chief called a "beast ... a fire like I've never seen in my life."
But the wider picture was more optimistic as officials said 85 percent to 90 percent of the city remains intact, including the downtown district.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said about 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed, but firefighters managed to save 25,000 others, including the hospital, municipal buildings and every functioning school.
"This city was surrounded by an ocean of fire only a few days ago but Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have been saved and they will be rebuilt," Notley said.
She said the fire continues to grow outside the city and now is about 790 square miles (2,020 square kilometers) in size.
Notley said there will be a meeting Tuesday with the energy industry to discuss the state of their facilities and the impact on operations. The fire has forced as much as a third of Canada's oil output offline and was expected to impact an economy already hurt by the fall in oil prices.
"We're just beginning to become aware of the economic impacts," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
The bulk of the city's evacuees moved south after a mandatory evacuation order, but 25,000 went north and were housed in camps normally used for oil sands workers until they also could be evacuated south.
Most are staying with family and friends or returned to homes elsewhere in Canada, including many who have homes on Canada's Atlantic coast where there are fewer jobs.
Lac La Biche, Alberta, normally a sleepy town of 2,500 about 175 kilometers (109 miles) south of Fort McMurray, was helping more than 4,000 evacuees, providing a place to sleep, food, donated clothes and even shelter for pets.
Alberta Health Services Dr. Chris Sikora said a stomach virus broke out among 40 to 50 evacuees at the Northlands evacuation center in Edmonton where 600 people are staying and where up to 6,000 meals a day are being prepared for evacuees staying at hotels or with family and friends.
Alberta's oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray, a former frontier outpost-turned-city whose residents come from all over Canada. Officials said the oil mines north were not damaged and aren't threatened
Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated the wildfire has reduced Canada's oil sands production by a million barrels per day, but said in a note the lack of damage to the oil mines could allow for a fast ramp up in production. They noted, however, that the complete evacuation of personnel and of the city could point to a more gradual recovery.
Notley got her first direct look at the devastation on Monday after cold temperatures and light rain had stabilized the massive wildfire to a point where officials could begin planning allow residents to return. The break in the weather left officials optimistic they've reached a turning point on getting a handle on the massive wildfire.
More than 40 journalists were allowed into Fort McMurray on a bus escorted by police. The forest surrounding the road into town was still smoldering and there were abandoned cars. Only the sign remained at a Super 8 Motel and Denny's restaurant on the edge of town.
The Beacon Hill neighborhood was a scene of utter devastation, with homes burned to their foundations.
Allen said at one point in Beacon Hill the fire jumped across a road that is 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 meters) wide.
"This was a beast. It was an animal. It was a fire like I've never seen in my life," he said on the media bus.
In the early stages of the fire he feared that as much as half the city could burn down.
Allen said at one point the fire raced down a hill to the corner of a bank, but firefighters were able to halt the encroaching flames. Had they failed to stop it there, the fire would have destroyed the downtown district, he said.
But other neighborhoods were not spared. In the Abasand district, townhouses were destroyed, and charred children's bikes could be seen in back yards.
Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is undrinkable in Fort McMurray. More than 250 power company workers are trying to restore the grid and assess the gas infrastructure.