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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canadian oil production cuts could more than double by Wednesday as companies move to protect employees and property from wildfires raging through northern Alberta and cope with the shutdown of a key pipeline.
Oil companies had shut in close to 50,000 barrels per day of production Tuesday because of wildfires in the Western Canadian province, one of the largest suppliers of crude to the United States. Further cuts are expected as big fields are closed in because they cannot ship their oil to market.
Spurred by warm temperatures and gusting winds, 100 wildfires are burning in Alberta, with 23 considered out of control in a fire season unlike any seen before.
"We are facing something largely unprecedented," Colin Lloyd, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told reporters. "The situation overall is very dangerous."
Almost 260,000 acres (1,050 sq km) have burned since the emergency began over the weekend, more than the province lost to fire in all of 2010, officials said.
The worst damage is concentrated in the Lesser Slave Lake region of northern Alberta, about 200 km (125 miles) north of the provincial capital of Edmonton. There, fires destroyed 40 percent of the town of Slave Lake on the weekend, forcing officials to evacuate most of the 10,000 residents of the oil, gas and forestry hub.
There have been no official estimates of the cost of the fire damage yet.
For oil producers operating in the rugged, heavily forested region of northern Alberta, fires are a common threat. But the infernos seen over the past few days are surprising even seasoned industry veterans.
"I would think probably every year the industry has an issue with forest fires," said John Langille, vice-chairman of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, the country's biggest independent oil producer. "I don't think any have been this dramatic -- certainly none have burned a town down."
The fires forced the closure of the southern leg of Plains All American Pipeline LP's Rainbow pipeline Sunday, the key conduit for oil producers in the region, shutting in tens of thousands of barrels of production.
Canadian Natural is slowing output at its Pelican Lake heavy oil field in Alberta, ahead of an increasingly likely shutdown, due to Rainbow's closure.
The company is filling up storage tanks at the 40,000 barrel a day facility and those are nearing capacity, President Steve Laut told reporters. When they fill, the field will have to be shut in, adding to the tally of production cuts.
Fire is threatening more of the company's northern Alberta properties as well. It evacuated 1,300 workers Monday from camps near its Horizon oil sands project when a blaze got within 150 meters (500 feet) of one facility.
As well, properties producing 3,125 bpd of oil and 8 million cubic feet of gas that are threatened by fire have been closed down.
Cenovus Energy Inc said Tuesday it is scaling back production at its 22,000 bpd Pelican Lake heavy oil field because of the Rainbow shutdown. Now pumping oil into storage, output at the field is down to 16,000 bpd and will be reduced further. Unless the line reopens, production will have to stop once storage tanks fill.
"We may reduce production even more tonight but we still anticipate our storage may be full sometime tomorrow," Rhona DelFrari, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email.
Other producers that have suspended some operations include Penn West Petroleum Ltd, which has shut 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a day of oil production in north-central Alberta.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc also said Tuesday it has shut in its Cliffdale and Seal heavy oil properties in the Peace River region, which are served by the Rainbow line. The company did not detail how much those fields normally produce.
Editing by Rob Wilson