UPDATE 4-Canadian firefighters make progress against fire in oil sands region

Thu May 19, 2016 7:43pm EDT
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(Adds Imperial Oil restart at Kearl site)

By Nia Williams and Eric M. Johnson

CALGARY, Alberta May 19 (Reuters) - Firefighters made progress against a wildfire in the Fort McMurray region of northern Alberta on Thursday as a shift in winds pushed it away from communities and oil sands facilities.

The massive blaze has charred 505,000 hectares (1.2 million acres), up from 483,000 on Wednesday. On Thursday, it moved to the neighboring province of Saskatchewan, but Alberta wildfire officer Chad Morrison said cooler weather and rain would aid efforts to get it under control.

"We saw a trace of rain this morning, so that's actually helped our firefighting efforts," he added.

Morrison said the burned area equals the total consumed in last year's entire fire season.

The blaze, which hit Fort McMurray in early May, surged north on Monday. It forced the evacuation of 8,000 oil sands workers, destroyed a work camp and prolonged a shutdown that has cut Canadian oil output by a million barrels a day.

Alberta's GDP is expected to take a hit as a result of the fire, the government said this week, and comes on the back of a two-year slump in global crude prices.

Credit agency S&P lowered its debt rating for Alberta to AA from AA+ on Thursday, citing a weak budgetary performance and high debt.   Continued...