Fort McMurray wildfire turns oilsands work camps into refuges for evacuees

Operations at oilsands operations near the wildfire that has put Fort McMurray, Alta., under an evacuation order are largely unaffected, although oil industry work camps are being converted into housing for evacuees.

As emergency fire crews work to contain the wildfire, which has already destroyed nearly 30 square kilometres, oilsands operators said Wednesday the fire doesn't pose an imminent threat, but they are taking every precaution and helping where they can.

Much of the destruction is in the southern end of the city, after the fire jumped Highway 63 and began to burn in the downtown core. Most major oilsands operations are well north of the city, and the nearby work camps could often house thousands of people at a time — areas now being pressed into service as temporary homes for displaced citizens.

Suncor's closest plant is about 25 kilometres north of the city, and the company is evacuating all non-essential staff to other areas outside the reach of the flames. 

"We're providing transportation and accommodation to the region to support the evacuation," spokesman Paul Newmarch said. "We're making whatever we have available to support the evacuation."

Evacuees are being directed to the company's emptied work camp in the area.

Will Gibson, another spokesman for the company, is one of the evacuees who headed to another Suncor facility 35 kilometres north of the community and away from the flames.

"People are actually being evacuated toward the plants," he said. "We're being instructed to go to work camps in the region and report in there. We're assuming it will be more than a night."

Gibson said he had to flee his neighbourhood via a grass embankment because the fire had already cut off the road at both ends.

"I left my neighbourhood and there [were] houses on fire," he said. "I don't know if and when I'll be going back."

Labrador native Cavell Dumaresque, one of the evacuees heading north, told CBC News on Wednesday that her car was directed to an area even farther north, near the Firebag operation, because she had enough gas to get there and officials wanted to keep the closer locales as empty as possible.

"We weren't overcrowded when we got here, but they are still coming in as far as I can tell," she told CBC.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., which operates oilsands facilities even farther north, said it was working to ensure any affected workers and their families could use its camps.

Shell Canada said its operations about 95 kilometres north of the city were thus far unaffected, but a spokesman for the oil company says it is doing everything it can to help out.

"We've made our work camp available to staff and their families who have been evacuated and need a place to stay," said Cameron Yost of Shell Canada.

"We are looking at getting non-essential people out by aircraft," said Yost, adding that Shell's camp could accommodate hundreds of evacuees.

Representatives of Syncrude, CNOOC subsidiary Nexen Energy and pipeline company Enbridge all said their operations were unaffected.

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