Canada oil sands beefing up defenses as wildfire season looms

Wed Apr 19, 2017 4:06pm EDT
 
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By Nia Williams

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Northern Alberta's oil sands producers and communities are stepping up preparations for wildfire season to avoid a repeat of last year's devastating blaze that shut in more than a quarter of Canadian crude output and left thousands homeless.

The May 2016 fire ripped through the oil sands hub of Fort McMurray, destroying 10 percent of homes in the remote city of 88,000 people and shutting in more than a million barrels of crude production.

The region saw another mild winter, similar to the previous one, but has had a wetter fall and spring which should reduce the wildfire risk. Still, Fort McMurray has added eight new firefighters and begun fire-prevention measures like preemptively burning off vegetation that could fuel fires.

"Burning light fuels like dry grass started a month earlier than normal (this year)," said fire captain Damian Asher, who lost his home in the 2016 blaze.

Companies operating around Fort McMurray including Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd and Royal Dutch Shell cut production for weeks because of the fire threat last year, dealing a heavy blow to revenues.

With crude prices hovering around $50 a barrel, the high-cost oil sands sector, which has seen an exodus of international investment in recent months, can ill afford more lengthy shut-ins.

Nearly all the projects are surrounded by dense boreal forest that provided ample fuel for last year's blaze.

Canadian Natural and Husky Energy said they have enhanced firebreaks at their respective 172,000 barrel-per-day Horizon and 34,000-bpd Sunrise sites by cutting back surrounding vegetation.   Continued...

 
FILE PHOTO --  A Mountie surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this May 4, 2016 image posted on social media. Courtesy Alberta RCMP/Handout via REUTERS