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article imageCanadian oil hub works to restore power, eyes resuming full oil output

By Julien Besset, Michel Comte (AFP)     May 10, 2016 in World

Crews worked Tuesday to start restoring water and electricity in this Canadian petroleum hub crippled by huge forest fires, as officials said stalled oil production could resume in days.

Oil is the lifeblood of the economy in this part of Alberta province, and the fires raging around Fort McMurray for the past 10 days or so have led to a 40 percent drop in output.

Oil facilities have escaped major damage so far. But fires are still burning and officials say the main task is to keep them contained around those plants so workers can be flown back in.

Oil production facilities that have shut down altogether could get up and running "in the coming days and short weeks ahead," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley after a meeting with oil company executives.

Dogs who were evacuated with their owners sit in cages at an evacuee centre in Lac la Biche  Alberta...
Dogs who were evacuated with their owners sit in cages at an evacuee centre in Lac la Biche, Alberta on May 9, 2016
Cole Burston, AFP

But she stressed that certain conditions must be met first.

These including ensuring that local roads are safe, that thousands of workers get back and hospitals and clinics reopen.

Canada's largest oil company, Suncor, closed two production facilities north of Fort McMurray, for instance, and its Syncrude unit also shut down some operations.

Other companies that halted or scaled back production because of the fires include Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total and Nexen, which is a unit of China's CNOOC.

The relatively upbeat news on the oil front is most welcome in a city that has been through a lot.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley leaves a news conference in Fort McMurray on May 9  2016
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley leaves a news conference in Fort McMurray on May 9, 2016
Chris Wattie, Pool/AFP/File

A ride through Fort McMurray showed the center of the now-evacuated city of 100,000 came out of the disaster largely intact. But the suburbs, where some people got a half hour's notice to leave a week ago, were singed.

- Ruined suburbs -

The outlying areas are now a ruined, scorched landscape dotted with the odd survivor, like an elementary school here or a bus stop shelter there, coated in soot but still standing.

Plots of land where houses once stood are now separated by melted, twisted skeletons of metal fences.

Neat, nicely kept neighborhoods -- with single-family homes, yards with swing sets and houses for dogs -- are pretty much gone.

Smoke rises from a burned out area on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray  Alberta  Canada  May 9  201...
Smoke rises from a burned out area on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 9, 2016
Chris Wattie, Pool/AFP

Outside one lot, a totally charred bike lies in the driveway of what had been a house. All that's left is a disfigured stove, covered in rubble and leaning against a blackened wall.

Fires are stilling burning to the east of the city. And the tally of how much land was charred now stands at 2,230 square kilometers (860 square miles), with 2,400 homes and other buildings destroyed.

As one approaches the city from the south on Highway 63, the lush green grass of springtime quickly gives way to scorched trees whose foliage went up in flames.

- 'Ocean of fire' -

Still, it could have been much, much, worse, said Notley.

"The city was surrounded by an ocean of fire only a few days ago. But Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities have been saved and they will be rebuilt," she said late Monday.

"I've never seen anything like this," said city fire chief Darby Allen. "If that fire had gotten into the downtown, we would have lost the downtown area."

Inside the city, electrical utility crews got to work replacing wooden poles burned away by the fire, so they get power lines back up.

It will be at least two weeks before people can start returning to their homes, if they still have one, said Allen.

Health authorities reported an outbreak of gastroenteritis in shelters for people evacuated from Fort McMurray, with 105 cases tallied so far, most of them in one facility.

Of the 105 people who have come down with the stomach flu, 75 are staying at the largest fire-evacuee reception center, in Edmonton, the provincial capital, said Chris Sikora of Alberta Health Services.

More than 16,000 evacuees have passed through that center, officials said.

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