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Tar Sands Operations Shut Down, Work Camps Evacuated as Fire Jumps North

The mandatory evacuation order was issued late Monday night to cover 8,000 people north of Fort McMurray

Smoke from wildfires has made air quality in Fort McMurray extremely poor. (Photo: Canadian Press)

Major Alberta tar sands facilities have been shut down and 19 work camps are under a mandatory evacuation order, after weather conditions caused Canada's uncontrolled Fort McMurray wildfire to surge northward on Monday.

The order, which covers about 8,000 people and was issued late Monday evening, came due to the "unpredictable nature" of the fire and the fact that those camps could be isolated if the road was jeopardized, said Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.

The evacuation zone, stretching about 30 miles north of Fort McMurray to just south of Fort MacKay, included Syncrude and Suncor facilities, along with several smaller operations. As such, the Wall Street Journal reported, the order "is a setback for large oil-sands producers such as industry leader Suncor Energy Inc., which had said last week that it was in the process of planning to resume production at its oil sands sites."

The Edmonton Journal reported after 10pm local time that the wildfire, which began earlier this month, was at that time about nine to 12 miles from the tar sands facilities and was consuming nearly 100 feet of forest per minute.

In total, the fire has spread to more than 702,000 acres due in part to hot, dry weather conditions. About 90,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray and the surrounding area in the first week of May and they remain displaced.

The Globe and Mail reports:

Provincial wildfire manager Chad Morrison said on Monday morning there were still thousands of hot spots in and around Fort McMurray and firefighters are expected to be “seriously challenged” in the next several days. Crews have made progress with more than 60 kilometres of fire breaks, he said, but there is still extreme fire behaviour around the western and northern edges of the blaze, as well as the potential for new starts and lightning fires in the hot, dry and windy conditions.

Firefighters were counting on a change in the weather. The area's winds are expected to shift on Tuesday away from the oil sands facilities and towards thick boreal forests to the west.

Meanwhile, also on Monday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said extremely poor air quality could also delay efforts to bring residents home again. The air-quality index—based on measurements of three contaminants: smoke, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide—is normally on a scale of one to 10; right now, it's 38.

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