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Suncor Poised to Get Back to Work as Fire Evacuations Eased

Updated on
  • Cooler, humid weather containing blaze in oil-sands region
  • Suncor says Monday is earliest day for workers to return

Cooler, humid weather that’s helping control a wildfire in the heart of Canada’s oil patch is allowing Suncor Energy Inc. and Syncrude Canada Ltd. to start getting back to work.

Municipal authorities, citing improved conditions late on Friday, lifted mandatory evacuation orders for seven oil-sands worker accommodation camps and production facilities in Alberta, including Suncor’s base plant mine and Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine. That’s much sooner than they’d predicted just hours earlier, under the expectation that air quality would need to improve and a few more days of firefighting would be necessary to make those sites safe.

More than 1 million barrels a day of output was taken off line by a wildfire that’s ravaged the region since the start of May. More than 80,000 people fled the inferno from Fort McMurray and surrounding communities initially, and another 8,000 workers were forced to clear out earlier in the week as flames turned back north of Fort McMurray, thwarting work on resuming operations.

Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company, and Syncrude have been more hampered by the fire than other oil-sands operators that were able to continue restarting after the initial threat passed.

Suncor said in a Facebook post on Friday evening that it’s planning a “staged remobilization” of its East Tank Farm and three production sites that account for the bulk of the company’s upstream output: the base plant, Firebag and MacKay River facilities. Monday is the earliest a small number of workers can return, joining the essential personnel who were allowed to remain on site, the company said.

“We continue to prepare for a staged restart of our operations,” Sneh Seetal, a Suncor spokeswoman, said in an e-mail on Saturday.

Syncrude, a joint venture controlled by Suncor, had evacuated all but critical staff from its Mildred Lake and Aurora mines. The company can’t yet provide details on how the lifting of the evacuation order will affect its plan for a safe return and restart to operations, Leithan Slade, a Syncrude spokesman, said on Saturday via e-mail.

“Due to the dynamics of the situation, a timeline for the safe restart of production is not currently available,” Slade said.

The Fort McMurray wildfire hasn’t grown overnight and is about 5,044 square kilometers (1,947 square miles) in size, more than four times the area of New York City. Rain fell in the fire area early on Saturday and more is expected, with calmer winds of about 10-15 kilometers per hour and a temperature around 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit), Laura Stewart, an Alberta wildfire information officer, said by phone.

“The conditions have improved dramatically in the area,” Stewart said. “Firefighters have made incredible progress.”

The fire is expected to be Canada’s costliest disaster for insurers and is dealing a blow to Alberta’s energy-dependent economy, already reeling from a market downturn for oil.