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Cooler weather gives firefighters hope as Fort McMurray blaze spreads

This file photo taken on May 7, 2016 shows flames and smoke rising off Highway 63 outside Fort McMurray, Canada.

COLE BURSTON//AFP/Getty Images

The massive Fort McMurray wildfire continues to threaten oil sands facilities and Canada's oil sands capital but, as flames crossed into Saskatchewan Thursday, cool weather gave officials hope that the inferno can be beaten back.

The 2,423 firefighters battling forest fires across Alberta on Thursday helped hold hastily erected fire lines around Fort McMurray. North of the city, 19 work camps remain under a mandatory evacuation order after a 665-unit camp was destroyed by flames on Monday.

The fire has grown to 5,056 square kilometres, burning more land than every fire season in Alberta over the past decade except for the record 2011 year. A seven-square-kilometre finger of flames jumped across the Saskatchewan border on Thursday, west of the town of La Loche.

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With cooler temperatures after a high of only 16 C on Thursday, and humidity increasing to 40 per cent, firefighters got a rare break after a week of scorching sun.

Saskatchewan's commissioner of emergency management, Duane McKay, said on Thursday that the fire is now 30 kilometres from La Loche, but crews and equipment have been moved up to battle the flames.

"La Loche is situated against a lake, there are old burns to the north as well, so we don't see a direct fire threat to La Loche," he said.

Winds are expected to shift over the next day and push the fire's smoke and flames back into Alberta – a relief for residents of La Loche who were blanketed by thick, acrid smoke over the past few days. On Wednesday, residents reported the sun was being blotted out by smoke hours before dusk.

There have been no evacuations in Saskatchewan. Now that the province's crews have taken over responsibility for beating back the eastern edge of the massive Alberta fire, Mr. McKay said that it's hard to predict the inferno's behaviour.

"This fire has been completely unpredictable. It was anticipated to have been in Saskatchewan almost a week ago and it stalled out; it is now moving again," he said.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced plans on Wednesday to start bringing residents back to Fort McMurray on June 1 if the fire no longer poses a threat.

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Re-entry efforts stalled by renewed flames earlier this week resumed on Thursday as retailers returned to the community to prepare amenities before the first of 80,000 evacuees make the trek back to Fort McMurray.

Alberta also lifted a fire ban across much of the province on Thursday, citing the cool weather.

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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