Winds set to push blaze away from Canadian oil city, says wildfire service

Smoke rises from wildfire MWF017 on the south side of the Athabasca River valley near Fort McMurray

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Favorable winds are expected to push a major wildfire away from the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray, officials said on Wednesday, offering some relief less than a day after 6,600 people were ordered to evacuate.

The fire, which is out of control, advanced overnight and by early morning was just 5.5 km (3.4 miles) away from the city's landfill, which lies on the south eastern outskirts, compared with 7.5 km (4.7 miles) late on Tuesday.

Vast dark clouds of choking smoke drifted over the western province of Alberta, home to Fort McMurray, where conditions are tinder dry.

"We are expecting the fire to move away from the community ... these are really favorable winds for us," said Christie Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Alberta Wildfire service.

"Firefighters are going to be working very hard ... to make significant progress while we have that reprieve," she told a briefing in the Albertan capital Edmonton.

Fort McMurray is the hub for Canada's oil sands output. A huge wildfire in 2016 forced the evacuation of 90,000 residents, burned down around 2,400 buildings and shut in more than 1 million barrels per day of output.

Around 6,600 people in four southwestern suburbs closest to the blaze were told to evacuate on Tuesday, and highways out of the city in the western province of Alberta soon became clogged.

"Nothing can prepare you," said Fort McMurray resident Aleks Mortlock, who also had to leave in 2016.

"Still the same anxiety, same things going through your mind, and this time, I have kids to worry about," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "They don't really understand."

Officials in the Wood Buffalo regional municipality, which includes Fort McMurray, said people who had left would not be able to return until May 21 at the earliest and acknowledged the strain this would impose.

"There is some trauma in the community," mayor Sandy Bowman told a separate briefing in Fort McMurray.

Crews are working to establish a containment line and helicopters and air tankers will continue to drop water and retardant on the active edges of the fire. The fire currently covers 20,940 hectares (81 square miles).

Officials said night vision-equipped aircraft dropped a total of around 116,000 gallons (525,000 liters) of water on the blaze overnight.

Although firefighting is primarily the responsibility of the provinces, Ottawa can intervene if need be. A spokesperson for the federal Department of Emergency preparedness said there had so far been no provincial requests for help.

There are currently 45 active fires in Alberta. Blazes are also spreading in the north of neighboring British Columbia, where the small town of Fort Nelson was evacuated last week.

(Additional reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Saadeq Ahmed in Toronto; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Josie Kao and Aurora Ellis)