Calgary (Alberta): A wildfire that raged out of control destroyed much of one neighborhood in the remote western Canadian city of Fort McMurray and badly damaged others, the local government said on Wednesday, with all 80,000 residents ordered to leave in the biggest evacuation in the area's history.
Firefighters in the city, located in the northeastern part of the province of Alberta in the heart of Canada's oil sands, braced for another tough day. Hot, dry weather has made it difficult to bring the fire under control.
By early on Wednesday morning, Shell had closed one oil sands mine and was in the process of closing another. Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said the company's priority was safety and to support the community. Henry said upgraders, which process oil sands to produce crude, would operate for a few more days.
The regional government on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of all city residents, but getting out remained difficult.
The route out of Fort McMurray was complicated by a highway closure caused by the fire, and gasoline shortages prevented some people from being able to drive away. Some 44,000 people had fled the city by late on Tuesday, local officials said.
No injuries or deaths were reported.
The fire broke out southwest of the city on Sunday, then shifted with the wind to enter the city on Tuesday. A forecast of potential fire intensity showed much of the area at class 6, the highest possible level.
While oil sands facilities are not in the fire's path, the blaze is likely to disrupt operations. Many workers were under evacuation orders and some will likely lose their homes.
"The worst of the fire is not over. We're still faced with very high temperatures tomorrow (Wednesday), low relative humidity and some strong winds," Bernie Schmitte, an Alberta Forestry official, said late on Tuesday.
Officials said their priority was protecting people and preserving key infrastructure, including the city's only bridge over the Athabasca River and Highway 63, the only route in and out of town.
"Fuel is not readily available - do not attempt to travel south without sufficient fuel," the regional government wrote in a bulletin posted on Twitter early on Wednesday.
Later, the regional government said 80 per cent of Beacon Hill, a residential area at the south end of town, had been destroyed by the fire. Two other neighborhoods, Abasand and Waterways, were considered a "serious loss," it said.
About 2,200 people, or 607 households, live in Beacon Hill, according to a 2015 municipal census. Abasand is home to nearly 4,900 people, and Waterways more than 600.
Alberta Health Services said all patients had been successfully evacuated from Fort McMurray's hospital.
The reduced oil sands production resulting from the fires was seen supporting global oil prices. Alberta is the biggest source of US oil imports.
The oil sands accounted for roughly 2.2 million barrels per day, 60 per cent of overall Canadian crude oil output in 2014, according to industry statistics.
"What we are hearing is that the wildfires aren't necessarily at this point threatening the actual production facilities but they are cutting back on production to free up time for the workers, and so they are reducing production," said Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at Royal Bank of Canada.
"Come May GDP there will probably be a hit from the wildfires, but we will have to see how long it persists."
Alberta could be in for long and expensive wildfire season this year as it is much drier than normal after a mild winter with lower-than-average snowfall and a warm spring.