By Liz Hampton and Rod Nickel
LAC LA BICHE, Alberta (Reuters) – Canadian firefighters looked to cooler weather on Monday to help with their battle against the country’s most destructive wildfire in recent memory, as officials sought to gauge the damage to oil sands boomtown Fort McMurray.
The fire, which started on May 1, spread so quickly that the community’s 88,000 inhabitants barely had time to leave and whole neighbourhoods were destroyed.
“This is great firefighting weather, we can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it,” Alberta fire official Chad Morrison said on Sunday.
The wildfire scorching through Canada’s oil sands region in northeast Alberta had been expected to double in size on Sunday, but light rains and cooler temperatures helped hold it back.
The temperature, which reached a high of 17 C (63°F) on Sunday, was expected to cool further, with Environment Canada forecasting a 40 percent chance of showers in Fort McMurray on Monday.
Cooler temperatures around 10 C were expected through to Friday after last week’s record heat. Still, much of Alberta is tinder-box dry after a mild winter and warm spring.
Alberta’s government estimated on Sunday that the fire had consumed 161,000 hectares (395,000 acres).
Officials made clear it was too early to put a time line on getting thousands of evacuees camped out in nearby towns back to Fort McMurray soon, even if their homes are intact.
The city’s gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged and the water is undrinkable.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said on Sunday recovery efforts had begun, with 250 employees from power company ATCO working to restore the power grid and assess gas infrastructure.
Fort McMurray is the centre of Canada’s oil sands region. About half of the crude output from the sands, or 1 million barrels per day, has been taken offline, according to a Reuters estimate.
Oil prices jumped almost 2 percent in trading early on Monday, as Canada’s fire contributed to tightening supply.[O/R]
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).
Nearly all of Fort McMurray’s residents escaped the fire safely, although two people were killed in a car crash during the evacuation.
In his now regular evening message Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen on Sunday sent condolences to the families of the two teenage cousins in the crash. One of the victims, 15-year-old Emily Ryan, was the daughter of a fireman in the city.
Regional officials also said via Facebook that firefighters were getting their first break since the fire began a week ago after being relieved by reinforcements.
(With additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary; Writing by Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Richard Pullin)
Top Image: Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch