More rain expected as firefighters continue battling Fort McMurray wildfire

“When you return home, your neighbourhoods will remain the same,” said Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz.

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At the old airport terminal south of Fort McMurray, helicopters race between the airport and the fire carrying around eight wildland firefighters at a time.

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Gavin Hojka, an incident commander with Alberta Wildfire, says there is no road access and it would take a day for the crews to hike through the Boreal Forest to reach the wildfire.

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They still have to hike to the wildfire when they’re dropped off and carry chainsaws, generators, pumps, axes, shovels, food and “thousands of thousands of feet of hoses.”

Shifts at the fire line last 14 to 16 hours. Hojka agrees its hard, grueling work. He monitors their progress and safety from a command post, which is run out of mobile trailers. He’s fed a constant stream of data from radar, satellites, and radio reports from firefighters on the ground and helicopter pilots.

On Friday, 224 firefighters and 22 helicopters are assigned to battle the wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray. The size of the wildfire, which is identified as MWF-017, has been revised as 19,582 hectares in size. The new size is thanks to a more accurate survey of the area now that smoke has cleared.

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The closest point of the fire remains 5.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill and 4.5 kilometres from the intersection of highways 63 and 881. Rains on Thursday and Friday have dropped the fire risk in the area, but a provincial ban remains on campfires and off-highway vehicles.

“More rain showers are in the forecast,” said Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St-Onge on Friday.

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A firefighter stands by a pump in the Hangingstone River that feeds a network of sprinklers protecting the neighbourhood from a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on May 17, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

On the edges of Grayling Terrace, the Hangingstone River feeds a network of large sprinklers drenching the forest with water. Depending on the water source, they can shoot between 75 and 150 gallons of water per minute. Nearly five kilometres of water lines linking sprinklers are scattered across Fort McMurray’s southern edges.

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Jody Butz, the regional fire chief and emergency management director, can’t help but notice the irony of relying on the Hangingstone River to protect the neighbourhood.

“In a flood season, this is a concern. But during a fire, it’s a benefit,” he said during a Thursday media tour. “We’ll take the good with the bad.”

Most of the 2,579 homes destroyed in the 2016 Horse River Wildfire were in Abasand and Beacon Hill. People won’t return to find an ashen moonscape of debris, but they will find trees soaked red.

A red-orange layer of fire retardant, about 30 metres thick in some parts, coats about 4.5 kilometres of forest. Butz says the 168,000 litres of fire retardant are a harmless fertilizer. The phosphate-based fertilizer feels like a thin paint until it hardens. Eventually it will wash away after about a month.

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There are 36 firefighters in Fort McMurray maintaining the water lines and deploying fire retardant. In Grayling Terrace, there were trucks from the fire departments of Hinton, Lac La Biche and Red Earth Creek parked next to vehicles from the Fort McMurray Fire Department. There are also 40 police officers dedicated to watching over the evacuated neighbourhoods.

“When you return home, your neighbourhoods will remain the same,” said Butz. “Yesterday, RCMP special tactical operations visited every evacuated neighbourhood to document conditions of each home, and no damages were observed or reported.”

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Derek Gough, an operations section chief with Alberta Wildfire, and Gavin Hojka, an incident commander, speak to media from an incident command centre south of Fort McMurray on May 17, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
fire retardant
Fire retardant covers trees in Beacon Hill, as part of a protective measure against a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray on May 17, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Networ

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