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Too soon to assess impact of oil disruption on Alberta economy: Notley

The Ptarmigan Court trailer park is seen during a media tour in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Jonathan Hayward/Bloomberg

As the wildfires around Fort McMurray grew larger but less intense Tuesday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the province will continue to assess the extent of the damage to critical infrastructure before determining when residents may be able to return.

The wildfires grew – as expected – to about 229,000 hectares, or twice the size of the city of Calgary, after two separate fires joined together. But there were hopeful signs that the fire was losing its intensity, according to Barry Shellian, information officer with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. Cooler temperatures, higher moisture in the air and lighter winds were helping efforts to suppress the fire, he said.

The fire was also moving away from Fort McMurray in a southeast direction and unlikely to be a threat. "That's a very fortunate thing, it's mainly wildland in that area now, so it's past our communities," said Mr. Shellian.

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Premier Notley met with oil sands executives Tuesday and said it's too soon to assess the impact that the disruption to oil sands production will have on the provincial economy. The emergency shutdown is believed to have reduced production by more than one million barrels of oil a day.

"We know that as things stand right now the majority of production has stopped," Ms. Notley said. "If that were to continue for a month or two you would start to see measurable outcomes to our GDP, but that's premature at this point."

Oil-industry officials held a joint news conference with the Premier following their meeting and said they expected they will be able to restart production at many of the facilities north of the fire-affected area in the coming days and weeks. It may take longer in areas to the south of Fort McMurray as electrical infrastructure in those areas was more seriously damaged. But the return of workers to the camp facilities, many of which were only damaged by smoke, should not necessarily suggest a quick return for residents in the town of Fort McMurray, where electricity, gas and water will have to be restored and a number of other safety concerns addressed before people can go home again.

Steve Williams, the CEO of Suncor Energy, acting as spokesman for the industry, said no layoffs were planned as a result of the temporary shutdowns. He also said that the energy industry will be at the forefront of efforts to rebuild Fort McMurray through its support of the Red Cross, the United Way and other organizations.

"You can count absolutely on industry to be there, shoulder to shoulder," Mr. Williams said. "This is our community; this is where we live. We've been here for the last 50 years and we plan to be here for the next 50, so you'll see us working hard to rebuild Fort McMurray."

Ms. Notley said the meeting marked a significant step as Alberta begins to recover from the fire, which destroyed about 2,400 structures and burned more than 2,300 square kilometres.

"This is an important step in the recovery of our people, our communities and our province, and quite frankly, the national economy as well," she said.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to visit the site of the fire on Friday as he rose in the House of Commons to thank firefighters and first responders for their work during the emergency. He also thanked Canadians for giving generously to relief efforts. The Canadian Red Cross said it has so far received about $60-million in donations, not including the matching funds promised by the federal government. It said more than 700 staff are working to register the more than 80,000 evacuees from Fort McMurray, some of whom are being lodged in shelters in Calgary, Edmonton and Lac La Biche.

Federal Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk said the government is working to speed up the handling of employment insurance claims from Fort McMurray and cut wait times for benefits.

"EI is to be there when people need it and the folks at Fort McMurray definitely need it, so we're stepping up," Ms. Mihychuk said.

She said staff are going to try to reduce the normal 28-day wait period substantially.

In neighbouring Saskatchewan, officials have been anxiously monitoring the fires in northern Alberta, which had moved within 30 kilometres of the Saskatchewan boundary. But officials said the situation is now stable.

"We have not seen the predicted movement of the large fires in Alberta towards Saskatchewan. They are stable there in terms of their movement, which is a relief for us in the northwest part of the province," said Duane McKay, the province's commissioner of emergency management.

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With a report from Canadian Press

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Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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Affan Chowdhry is the Globe's multimedia reporter specializing in foreign news. Prior to joining the Globe, he worked at the BBC World Service in London creating international news and current affairs programs and online content for a global audience. More

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