Northern Alberta wildfires force evacuations at Suncor, Cenovus oilsands sites

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Suncor and Cenovus employees in the oilsands are being evacuated due to wildfires in northern Alberta, as a heat wave increases the risk of fires across the province.

Non-essential workers at Suncor’s Firebag facility were removed from the site last week due to wildfires in the area. The company has curtailed some production while essential personnel remain, Suncor said in a statement to Postmedia.

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The Firebag site typically has about 400 people on site and produces about 215,000 barrels per day, according to Suncor’s website.

Cenovus has meanwhile demobilized staff “not directly involved in operations” at its Sunrise site, about 60 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray. It produces about 50,000 barrels per day, according to a 2022 company release.

Oil and gas companies with facilities in northern Alberta are receiving twice-daily briefings from the Alberta government on the status of all wildfires, which Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen said is informing companies’ decisions to evacuate workers.

“They know their operations best, so they’ll make the decisions on whether they should evacuate, shut down facilities or things like that,” Loewen said in an interview. “Our main purpose and goal is to make sure they’re informed so they can make informed decisions on how they’re operating.”

Loewen did not say whether other companies have curtailed production or evacuated employees. The Alberta government has otherwise not intervened or aided in oilsands companies’ efforts to manage the wildfire risk.

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Stretch of hot weather raises wildfire risk in Alberta

The prolonged heat wave is increasing Alberta’s wildfire risk at a rapid pace, Alberta Wildfire said Tuesday morning.

Large sections of southern Alberta — including areas around Medicine Hat and Lethbridge — are under fire bans, while most areas north of those municipalities are under fire advisories.

The advisories come after a wet and cool spring in southern Alberta that’s largely kept the region’s skies clear of wildfire smoke. Northern Alberta, however, is experiencing several wildfires, including two major out-of-control blazes.

More than 200 firefighters are working to manage an aggressive 13,000-hectare fire about 70 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, and about eight kilometres from industrial facilities in the oilsands. Monday’s update said firefighters expected a “challenging” day due to hotter temperatures.

North of Fort McMurray remains the most concerning wildfire hot spot, Loewen said.

Several other wildfires in the Peace region are burning close to each other, according to Alberta Wildfire, which is so far requiring 113 firefighters to attend the scene. One of those fires is estimated to be greater than 16,000 hectares and was caused by lightning. That fire is not deemed a threat to any communities.

Southern Alberta’s fire risk isn’t a concern at the moment, Loewen said, however a prolonged bout of heat could wipe out much of the moisture accumulated earlier in the spring and summer.

“There is some moisture in the forest, but a period of hot weather over an extended period of time will dry out that forest and we’ll have concerns in the south, too,” he said.

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