EDMONTON, Alberta — A week after it started, the enormous forest fire that attacked Fort McMurray, Alberta, had abated enough on Sunday to allow police, fire and health workers to move into hotels within the abandoned city.
Although the fire was far from vanquished, lower temperatures and light showers allowed firefighters to check its progress. Rachel Notley, the premier of the province, said the fire was “quite a bit smaller than we feared.” Instead of reaching half a million acres as forecast, she said, it had covered 390,000 acres by Sunday morning.
The fire’s path shifted away from Fort McMurray into a heavily forested and unpopulated area closer to the border with Saskatchewan, said Chad Morrison, Alberta’s wildfire manager. The change in weather, he added, should allow firefighters to start applying a “death grip” on the blaze over the coming days. But fully extinguishing the flames is likely to take months.
“It definitely is a positive point for us, for sure,” Morrison told reporters.
Sunday was the first time that officials had adopted a positive tone when discussing the fire, which began as a small blaze that resisted attempts to snuff it out on May 1. Despite the optimism, though, the fire continued to bring disruption.
After severely curtailing production, Husky Energy shut down its oil sands operations north of Fort McMurray, following the precedent set by other companies, including Syncrude, the large oil sands venture north of the city. Although the fire had approached Syncrude’s two vast strip mines and processing plant, it did not cause damage, Morrison said. Many other oil sands companies were evacuating workers on Sunday.
Small fires continued to flare up in parts of Fort McMurray, damaging two houses overnight. But with the threat somewhat eased, the city’s 88,000 evacuees who are now mainly in Edmonton may be able to learn the fate of their homes. After reporting early on that 1,600 properties had been destroyed, officials have provided no updates.
As the government shifts its main focus from protecting Fort McMurray to planning for its residents’ return, a team of engineers and analysts will begin a formal damage assessment on Monday.