Raging fire turns Canadian city into a ghost town

By Alan Freeman

A helicopter battles a bushfire in Fort McMurray Alberta. Photo / AP
A helicopter battles a bushfire in Fort McMurray Alberta. Photo / AP

They called it Fort McMoney.

No place in Canada better exemplified the country's oil boom than Fort McMurray, a once-sleepy outpost in the boreal forest of northeastern Alberta that became the epicentre of the country's oil-sands boom.

The good times seemed as if they would never end. Drivers of heavy trucks hauling the bitumen-bearing sand could earn up to C$150,000 a year with overtime. The city opened a new airport to meet demand.

But, as often happens with commodities, the oil boom has turned to bust. So the bushfire that has swept through the town of 80,000 this week has an added poignancy for Albertans, as the hopes and homes of their fellow citizens literally go up in flames.

With the fire raging, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today pledged the support of the federal Government to the western province, including military assistance. "Canada is a country where we look out for our neighbours," he said.

Along the single highway leading in and out of Fort McMurray, 440km northeast of the provincial capital of Edmonton, there were dystopian scenes of massive columns of fire swallowing up the tinder-dry forest along with suburban homes and businesses.

Weather forecasts predicted continued gusty winds, unseasonably high temperatures in the high 80s and, above all, no signs of rain - after a particularly dry winter.

Despite the heavy property damage, no injuries or deaths were reported. Officials said that 10,115ha in the area are ablaze and that 1600 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, including 80 per cent of homes in one neighbourhood.

A full evacuation was ordered on Wednesday as the fire burned around the town, but the huge mines and oil extraction facilities located well north of the city weren't considered in danger. Nevertheless, some operators said they were cutting production because of staff shortages as employees were forced to evacuate their families from the region.

Many of the thousands of evacuees have been travelling north from the town to the huge work camps that surround the open-pit mines from where the oil sands are extracted. Because of the fall in oil prices, some of the camps have been emptied of workers, opening up spaces for the fleeing residents.

The region was the engine of what then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an Albertan, vowed in 2006 would make Canada an "emerging energy superpower". Billions of dollars in investment flowed into the oil sands, followed by welders from Newfoundland and displaced factory workers from Ontario looking for high-paying jobs. Many remained transients, working for three weeks and flying home for 10 days.

In 2014, as the boom was peaking, Fort McMurray opened a new airport, costing C$258 million and five times as big as the old one, built in 1985.

"Canada's boomtown is getting an airport to match," the Globe and Mail newspaper reported breathlessly, noting that airport traffic had been growing by 25 per cent a year and that an expansion of the new airport was inevitable. There would be valet parking and direct flights for oil-sands workers to Mexico and Las Vegas.

With the bust, the airport is eerily quiet. In January, WestJet, the Alberta-based airline, announced sweeping service cuts, including an end to several routes serving Fort McMurray. The daily flight to Denver is gone, as is service to Mexico.

As the fire rages, the airport remains open, but many flights have been cancelled. On Wednesday, all patients of the local hospital were flown to Edmonton.

- Washington Post

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