Firefighters protect Canada's oil sands battling 1,100 C flames

Tue May 24, 2016 1:14am EDT
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(Editor's Note: Please be advised that the last paragraph contains language that some readers may find offensive)

By Liz Hampton, Eric M. Johnson and Ethan Lou

(Reuters) - Fighting massive forest fires is dangerous and taxing enough, but those sent into Canada’s oil sands are not only wrestling with one of the worst wildfires in the country’s history. They are doing it surrounded by the volatile, explosive chemicals and compounds critical to pumping oil from some of the world’s largest reserves.

Now in its third week, the fire's proximity to the billions of dollars worth of oil equipment, flammable liquids, and extraction sites had people fearful that the flames, which can jump as far as more than a kilometer with gusts of wind, could do catastrophic damage to critical infrastructure.

Dozens of safety workers and industrial firefighters are working at places like Syncrude and Suncor Energy's upgrading facilities north of Fort McMurray surrounded by flames burning to the edges of the oil sands, facing temperatures running as high as 1,100 Celsius (2,000 Fahrenheit).

The heavy bitumen in the oil sands themselves is not flammable, but the facilities and people inside are at risk.

“The most harrowing moments were when we first arrived on scene, dealing with these forest fires growing on you, flames jumping fifty feet in the air," said Aron Harper, 35, a firefighter and emergency medical technician employed by Suncor, who lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta province's main oil hub.

"We were yelling at guys to get out of there because the thing was growing so fast. I’ve never seen a fire grow that fast in my life.”

Firefighters do not measure forest fires by temperature, but by a measure known as "head fire intensity," said Travis Fairweather, Alberta wildfire information officer. It is calculated as the rate of heat energy released over time at the front of the fire, and this fire at times reached five times a level considered extreme, he said.   Continued...

FILE PHOTO - A member of Wildfire Management Alberta's Wild Mountain Unit out of Hinton, hoses down hotspots in the Parsons Creek area of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 6, 2016.  Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS