May 27, 2015 / 5:04 PM / 2 years ago

Alberta wildfires rage on, intensify near oil sands sites

CALGARY, Alberta, May 27 (Reuters) - A wildfire raging in northeastern Alberta near two major oil sands projects nearly doubled in size to 17,000 hectares on Wednesday, although firefighters made some progress tackling blazes elsewhere in the oil-rich Western Canadian province.

The fires have forced energy companies operating in Alberta, the largest source of U.S. oil imports, to shut in 233,000 barrels per day of production, or roughly 10 percent of total oil sands output.

Geoffrey Driscoll, a wildfire information officer at the Alberta government, said the fire on the Canadian military's Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR), near the oil sands projects, was still out of control even though 250 firefighters were battling to contain it.

Over the weekend the blaze, which began on Friday, forced Cenovus Energy Inc and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd to evacuate thousands of staff and shut in production at their Foster Creek and Primrose oil sands projects because the blaze closed the only access road to the sites.

Neither company has been able to provide an estimate of how quickly production can resume, and Cenovus spokesman Brett Harris said on Wednesday the fire had moved closer to Foster Creek.

"The only change is that the CLAWR fire is now estimated at around 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from Foster Creek versus 25 kilometres yesterday," he said.

Canadian Natural said the production status of its operations remains unchanged.

A number of other oil sands projects across the province have evacuated staff and slowed down operations due to other fires.

The Alberta government said there were 63 fires raging across the province, of which 15 were considered out of control. That was a slight pullback from Tuesday afternoon, when 70 fires were burning, including 20 uncontrolled blazes.

Residents of two hamlets evacuated earlier in the week as a precaution were allowed to return to their homes.

Husky Energy said fires that were affecting its Muskwa and Overlea natural gas facilities had been contained and operations were being resumed on Wednesday.

Driscoll said an unusually hot and dry spring was to blame for the spate of wildfires, and that there was no significant rainfall in the immediate forecast, meaning fires could continue for some time.

"In some areas of the province we are expecting some showers, however it's not going to be enough to counteract the weeks and weeks of dry weather we have had," he said. (Editing by Peter Galloway)

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