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.)
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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.
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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.