Rain, cooler temperatures reduce wildfire risk in Fort McMurray

Firefighters patrol the evacuated neighbourhood of Grayling Terrace in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Thursday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Firefighters patrol the evacuated neighbourhood of Grayling Terrace in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Thursday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Cool temperatures and rainfall have significantly reduced the wildfire risk in Fort McMurray but that doesn't mean the northeastern Alberta community is out of the woods when it comes to fire risk, officials said Friday.

About 10 millimetres of rain fell on the wildfire overnight and Environment Canada is forecasting another 10 millimetres of rain on Friday and Saturday night. The wildfire danger in Fort McMurray was being classified by Alberta Wildfire as low on Friday morning.

Josee St-Onge, an Alberta Wildfire information officer, said fire danger can change day-to-day based on weather conditions.

"We know in Alberta weather conditions can change very quickly. So once the rain goes away and we get some sunshine again, that fire danger could escalate very quickly," she said.

She said they are looking at the big picture when it comes to wildfire prevention, which is why a fire ban and off-highway vehicle restriction are still in effect.

Residents await all-clear to return home

About 6,600 residents of four Fort McMurray neighbourhoods — Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace — were evacuated on Tuesday afternoon.

They have been told not to expect to be allowed back to their homes before Tuesday, even though the wildfire hasn't grown or moved significantly closer to the community, officials said Friday.

Sandy Bowman, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the neighbourhoods need to remain evacuated because crews are still working on an out-of-control fire and things could change.

"The important lesson in 2016 is that we shouldn't be fighting a fire and evacuating neighbourhoods at the same time," he said. "As soon as we can welcome you home, we will do so."

In addition to the 6,600 people who were ordered to evacuate, many other Fort McMurray residents left voluntarily. Officials say those residents are welcome to return at any time.

Fire Chief Jody Butz said RCMP Special Tactical Operations visited every evacuated neighbourhood to document conditions of each home and found no damages.

"When you return home, your neighbourhoods will look the same," he said.

Officials said the size of the out-of-control wildfire south of Fort McMurray has remained unchanged at 19,820 hectares.

It is located 5.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill, which is just outside the community's south boundary, and 4.5 kilometres from the intersection of highways 63 and 881.

As of Thursday, 2,597 evacuees and 379 pets have registered at reception centres in Lac La Biche, Cold Lake and Edmonton, according to the municipality.

St-Onge said firefighters will continue to work on a containment line on Friday, "depending on whether helicopters can fly," she said.

There are 224 firefighters, 22 helicopters and 57 pieces of heavy equipment currently assigned to this wildfire, she said.

"As there is no road access to this wildfire, crews must be transported by helicopter to the fire line," St-Onge said.