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Canada Wildfire Won't Set Oil Sands Ablaze

The oil sands don't burn easily, and extraction operations escaped major damage. Continue reading →

Cooler weather and rain now are helping firefighters in their efforts to contain the massive wildfire raging in Alberta, which managed to reach the edge of the oil sands fields around Fort McMurray, various media outlets are reporting.

On Sunday, Canadian officials estimated that the fire had consumed 395,000 acres, and inflicted extensive damage upon Fort McMurray, an isolated city that's the hub for the oil sands operations that provide more than half of Canada' petroleum output. About 80,000 local residents have been evacuated.

The gigantic petroleum reserve, which Canadian officials say is the world's third largest behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela's fields, itself was never in serious danger of catching fire, according to an article in Canada's National Post. That's because the oil is the form of bitumen - a thick, viscous form that has a higher flash point - and is mixed with sand, clay and water, which make it even more difficult to ignite. (Here's a U.S. government FAQ on oil sands.)

NEWS: Canadian Fire Doubles in Size

The fire did have the potential to seriously damage the oil sands sites and the equipment used to extract the resource. But the oil companies had fire-protection strategies in place to protect their installations.

One major producer, Suncor, reported on its website that the fire had reached the southern end of the open-pit mine where the oil sands are extracted. But the company managed to avoid any damage to its operations, it said.

The company has long been prepared for such a fire. A 2004 article from the National Fire Protection Association Journal describes both the risks and the elaborate defenses in place at the time, which included a fire department with three ladder trucks and 46 firefighters, plus a detection system with 15,000 alarms.

A Suncor spokesman also told Reuters that the company had utilized bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear trees and vegetation and create a fire break around oil fields, and had installed water sprinklers and pumps to quench flames before they got too close.

NEWS: Sticky Problems With Tar Sands

Suncor told the Globe and Mail newspaper that it expected to get oil production back on line quickly.

The oil companies have been struggling to keep their facilities running, even while the fire was raging elsewhere, because it's difficult and costly to resume after a full shutdown. In the end, they had to cut production by 40 percent, or 1 million barrels per day, according to Reuters.

This is a satellite image of the Alberta fire, taken last week.

Smoke billows from the Fort McMurray wildfires as a truck drives down the highway in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada. Nearly 100,000 residents were evacuated and as many as 25,000 may be airlifted out of the area to safety.

25,000 Could Be Airlifted Away From Canada Wildfires

An aerial view from the helicopter of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shows smoke rising from raging wildfires.

The fires took a turn for the worse along highway 63 in Fort McMurray earlier this week. The area has seen unseasonable heat and had little rainfall.

100,000 Evacuated as Wildfires Scorch Canadian City

A firefighting helicopter worked over the blaze, which continues to threaten Fort McMurray neighborhoods. “The footage we’ve seen, the cars racing down highways while fire rages on all sides, is nothing short of terrifying,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of residents who left their homes under a mandatory evacuation.

Strathcona County, Alberta firefighters are seen taking a break in Fort McMurray in a photo that was posted to Twitter and went viral.

Fort McMurray Wildfire: How Warming Fits In

A flock of birds fly as smoke billows from the Fort McMurray wildfires in Kinosis. The fires have burned more than 200,000 acres and destroyed 2,000 homes.

VIDEO: Should We Control Wildfires?