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Firefighters make gains in Canada

May 9, 2016

A temperature plunge and a sprinkle of rain have helped calm the raging inferno that has raced through Alberta. But the damage has been done, and the blaze could go down in history as Canada's worst natural disaster.

A helicopter is seen through heavy smoke near a police car
Image: Reuters/RCMP

Buoyed by dramatically cooler temperatures, a fleeting rain shower and a shift in wind direction, Canadian officials say the battle against a massive wildfire has reached a turning point, and they hope to get a "death grip" on the inferno that has devastated parts of northeastern Alberta.

Karte Waldbrände Kanada Englisch

Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire told a news conference that the fight to contain the blaze has reached a turning point, and said he's "very happy."

He called it great firefighting weather, referring to daytime temperatures in the low 60s (about 16 Celsius), and night time temperatures near freezing.

"We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it," said Morrison.

Temperatures had soared into the 80s last week, but with cooler temperatures firefighters hope to extinguish hot spots, and to further protect the ravaged city of Fort McMurray. All 88,000 inhabitants of the community, built up around Canada's oil sands industry, were evacuated in recent days.

A massive wall of flames make pine trees and pick-up truck look small and feeble.
Great walls of fire near Fort McMurray, Alberta, CanadaImage: Reuters/Mark Blinch

"I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress," Morrison said.

Early damage assessment

The inferno destroyed some 1,600 homes and other buildings in and around Fort McMurray.

Officials plan to go back into the city on Monday for a preliminary assessment but they say it will take time before people can return home - even if their own homes aren't damaged.

(No one was killed or injured in the inferno but two people died in a car accident during the evacuations).

The city's gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged, and the water is undrinkable.

Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale cautioned that a lot of work remains.

Besides getting the utilities up and running in Fort McMurray, and organizing an orderly return of tens of thousands of residents, the forest fire continues to burn, albeit much less fiercely than on Saturday. Nonetheless it has scorched some 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares).

That is quite a bit less than had been feared on Saturday, when officials expected the fire to double in size and warned it would take months to extinguish.

The blaze, which had been racing east, towards the province of Saskatchewan is still about 25 miles (40 km) west of the provincial border and moving more slowly. Officials say they have more of it under control, and add that it's not threatening any communities.

But the damage has been done. The inferno will likely become the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. One analyst estimated insurance losses could top C$9 billion ($7 billion).

bik/bw (AP, Reuters, AFP)