Canada: Alberta fire count drops; PM tours devastation
Slave Lake: Damp weather helped crews douse the number of wildfires raging across northern Alberta on Friday as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper toured the town of Slave Lake, where hundreds of homes, businesses and public buildings went up in flames.
A big volume of oil production in the region remained shut in due to the closing of a major pipeline as 56 fires continued to burn across the north of Canada's biggest energy producing province. Ten of the fires were out of control.
That is down from more than 100 fires burning at the start of the week. So far, 2,638 square km (1,019 square miles) have burned, an area about the size of Luxembourg.
Slave Lake's more than 7,000 residents remained evacuated and some structures still smouldered five days after two blazes, whipped by high winds, converged on the town, a centre for the oil and gas and forestry industries.
After touring the region by military helicopter, Harper met with ash- and soot-covered firefighters and emergency personnel at their command centre in Slave Lake and thanked them for their efforts.
"You have to look at the bright side -- it's a miracle that there was no loss of life," Harper said.
In a statement, he said the federal government would work closely with the other levels of government to help residents through the disaster. The amount of federal financial assistance is not yet known
The Alberta government has pledged an initial C$52 million (USD 53.6 million) to help with the immediate needs of evacuees from Slave Lake and the surrounding region.
The oil industry continued to be hit as more than 150,000 barrels a day of production from companies such as Cenovus Energy Inc, Penn West Exploration and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd was unable to flow.
Much of that was because Plains All American Pipeline LP's Rainbow crude line was shut down due to fire danger, and some was due to fires drawing close to oil fields.
The pipeline operator said late on Friday that its 187,000 barrel per day Rainbow pipeline could be closed for another two weeks after the wild fires damaged the lines power supply.
"Southbound crude oil flows on the 24" Rainbow pipeline from Nipisi to Edmonton remain closed due to electrical outages related to forest fires in the area. We have been advised that it could take up to two weeks (or longer) to restore service to the area," the company said in a statement.
Depending on conditions, crews are expected to return on Tuesday to a site on the northern section of the Rainbow line to finish cleaning up an oil spill that occurred in late April.
Husky Energy Inc said on Friday that the closure of the pipeline and power problems at some northern Alberta production sites had cut its daily production by the equivalent of 17,000 bpd.
So far, the production outages have had minimal impact on Canadian crude markets, as the volume is a small fraction of Canada's 2.8 million barrels of daily output.
However, analysts have said fires will have a larger influence on the market if they prevent production for a much longer period or if they threaten oil sands production further to the east.