canada wildfire, cesta, šuma, požar.jpg
Photograph: EPA / MCPL VANPUTTEN / CANADIAN ARMED FORCES

Fire crews fighting the massive wildfire in the western Canadian province of Alberta finally got a Mother's Day present from Mother Nature as cooler temperatures slowed down the advance of the conflagration.

Instead of doubling in size as predicted, the fire, which has already destroyed more than 1,600 structures and forced almost 90,000 people to flee their homes, grew by only 5,000 hectares to about 161,000 hectares (1,610 square kilometres), Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters Sunday.

"This is quite a bit smaller than we had feared," Notley said. "Winds continue to blow the fire largely, east away from the community [of Fort McMurray]."

The fire is now 30 to 40 kilometres west of the border with Saskatchewan, Notley said.

"Firefighters did an amazing job containing the fire to the north of Fort McMurray, where it approached but so far has done no damage to the Suncor [oil sands] facility," Notley said.

She lauded firefighters who held the line in the community of Anzac, south of Fort McMurray.

"We lost some buildings there, but the team has been able to save the vast majority of the community so far," Notley said.

The priority for first responders in Fort McMurray itself remains looking for hot spots and dealing with flare ups, Notley said.

Crews from the provincial power and gas utilities are working on restoring the electrical grid and the natural gas network in the city, Notley said.

Authorities have installed equipment to monitor air quality as the heavy smoke hanging over vast areas is becoming a big health concern in Alberta and neighbouring Saskatchewan, where prevailing winds have carried ash east from the massive fire.

Notley lauded the work of the Canadian Nation railway, which was able to promptly remove rail cars filled with highly flammable and hazardous materials from the path of the fire.

She called it "quick and critical work that saved us from any repetition of the tragedy at Lac Megantic," a town in the eastern province of Quebec where 47 people were killed in July 2013 by a runaway train of oil tanker cars.

Notley said authorities completed the evacuation of about 25,000 evacuees who had sought shelter in oil sands mining camps north of Fort McMurray when raging flames overran the oil town, cutting the only escape route to southern Alberta.

Authorities moved about 300 hundred people from the indigenous community of Fort McKay, which had hosted hundreds of evacuees as well.

Authorities evacuated about 1,500 employees of Syncrude oil company, Notley said.

Leithan Slade, a spokesperson for Syncrude, told dpa that Syncrude has suspended operations at its Aurora and Mildred Lake sites, north of Fort McMurray near Fort McKay.

Groups of employees have been evacuated from the Suncor, Husky, Shell and CNRL oil sands facilities, Notley said. But many of these facilities are still operating.

Notley said she will meet Tuesday with representatives of Alberta's oil industry to discuss the crisis.

She expressed her condolences to the families of two people, including a 15-year-old girl, daughter of a local firefighter, who died in a fiery traffic accident during the hurried evacuation Tuesday from Fort McMurray.

The premier fought back tears as she expressed sadness over evacuees unable to celebrate Mother's Day at home.

"I'm hoping in all of this crisis to spend a few minutes with my own children," Notley said. "That not all of us can do that is definitely an awful tragedy. Today, on Mother's Day, all of us in Alberta are thinking of you who have suffered these losses."

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