FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (AP) — Officials said Sunday they had reached a turning point in fighting an enormous wildfire, hoping to get a “death grip'” on the blaze that ravaged parts of Canada’s oil sands town of Fort McMurray amid cooler temperatures and light rain. Meanwhile, a massive evacuation of residents displaced by the blaze came to an end.
Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfire told a news conference he’s “very happy” and called it great firefighting weather.
“We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it,” said Morrison, who answered yes when asked if they’ve reached a turning point.
With cooler temperatures expected in the next three or four days, he said firefighters should be able to put out hot spots. And it has allowed them to further protect fire-ravaged Fort McMurray. “I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress,” he said.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than had been feared and it was now 161,000 hectares (397,831 acres). She said the blaze is quite a bit smaller than had been expected on Saturday, when officials expected the fire to double in size.
She added the city is safe for first responders and that she will visit the city on Monday to assess the damage.
David Yurdiga, the member of Parliament for the area, toured Fort McMurray on Sunday and said he was now more optimistic.
“We’ll be back on our feet a lot quicker than I thought we would be,” he told reporters at a roadblock just south of the city. “All of the key infrastructure is in place. Our hospital is standing. Our schools are standing. Our treatment plant is functioning.”
“I toured probably every neighborhood in Fort McMurray and 80 percent of the homes are standing,” he said. “Some areas you don’t even know there was a fire.”
It rained on Sunday. The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, tweeted a picture of the rainfall and wrote: “It was only for a few minutes but the sight of rain has never been so good.” Notley retweeted the picture and wrote “Here’s hoping for much more!”
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said they “may be turning a corner” but it’s too early to celebrate and a lot of work remains.
Officials completed the transport of 25,000 residents out of work camps north of the city. Police and military oversaw a procession of thousands of vehicles Friday and Saturday, and a mass airlift of thousands of evacuees was also employed from the oil sands camps that usually house workers.
No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire itself. Notley, however, mentioned two evacuees who died in a traffic accident during the evacuation. Her voiced cracked when talking about the two and noted it is Mother’s Day. Fifteen-year-old Emily Ryan and her stepmother’s nephew, Aaron Hodgson, died in the accident.
The images of Fort McMurray are one of devastation — scorched homes and virtually whole neighborhoods burned to the ground.
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’ oil sands, where the fire has torched 1,600 homes and other buildings. Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is not drinkable. Officials said there is no timeline to return residents to the city, but the provincial government is sending in a team on Monday to do some preliminary planning.
The fire and mass evacuation has forced a quarter or more of Canada’s oil output offline and was expected to impact an economy already hurt by the fall in oil prices. The Alberta oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray.
Morrison said the fire has not reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray and that the mines north are not under threat. Notley said there will be a meeting with the energy industry on Tuesday and said topics will include the state of facilities and the impact on operations.
About 25,000 evacuees moved north in the hours after Tuesday’s mandatory evacuation, and were housed in camps normally used to house oil sands employees. Officials then moved everyone south Friday and Saturday.
Just over 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of Fort McMurray, the main highway into town is blocked off by barricades and police vehicles.
Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen asked for the patience of residents who are eager to find out if their homes are still standing.
“We are really working hard on that, it’s a complicated process, what’s damaged, what’s left,” Allen said in a posted video. “We really will get that to you as soon as we possibly can. We care about all of you.”
Lac La Biche, Alberta, normally a sleepy town of 2,500 about 175 kilometers (110 miles) south of Fort McMurray, was helping thousands of evacuees, providing a place to sleep, food, donated clothes and even shelter for their pets.
Jihad Moghrabi, a spokesman for Lac La Biche County, said 4,400 evacuees have come through The Bold Center, a sports facility in town.
Gillies reported from Toronto.