OTTAWA — Shifting winds turned Alberta’s huge wildfire back toward Fort McMurray on Monday, menacing the city once more and prompting new evacuations as the out-of-control blaze headed for two major oil sands projects north of the city.
After several days of allowing workers back into Fort McMurray to restart operations at the oil sands, about 500 to 600 people were evacuated from four small work camps, Rachel Notley, the premier of Alberta, said at a news conference on Monday.
As a precaution, an unknown number of employees of Syncrude and Suncor, two of the largest and oldest oil sands projects, were sent to camps farther north. On Monday, about 4,000 people had been working in the area at strip mines, processing plants and other operations owned by the two companies.
With the forests now burned, the earlier destruction provided Fort McMurray with a swath of protection. But the fire’s shift in direction to the north potentially jeopardized one residential neighborhood that had escaped destruction, Chad Morrison, Alberta’s wildfire service manager, said.
About 100 to 200 firefighters were in that area on Monday night to douse embers or flaming projectiles emitted by the fire. About 300 utility workers who had been restoring power lines in the city were gathered together for safety, and another 300 people, on hand to help in the city, had taken shelter in Fort McMurray’s hospital.
The fire was moving roughly parallel to the city and traveling about 40 yards per minute. By early evening it was nine to 12 miles from the Syncrude and Suncor facilities.
To the dismay of the authorities, the blaze jumped a large firebreak that had been constructed in its anticipated path.
“We’re fairly confident — fingers crossed, knock on wood — when it comes to Fort McMurray,” Scott Long, the executive director of operations for Alberta’s emergency management agency, told reporters. “Our concern tends to be towards the oil and gas infrastructure to the north.”
Like all major oil sands operations, Syncrude and Suncor have sophisticated fire services, and their operations are surrounded by a large area that has been stripped of trees and other flammable materials.
Even so, the fire’s new threat reverses earlier efforts to return the oil sands projects to full operation. The highway through Fort McMurray was reopened several days ago to allow workers to return to the work sites.
The road was closed again on Monday.