Canada wildfire explodes in size, fed by 'extremely' dry forest

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Wildfires Continue to Rage Across Canada

LAC LA BICHE, Alberta, May 7 (Reuters) - A raging Canadian wildfire grew explosively on Saturday as hot, dry winds pushed the blaze across the energy heartland of Alberta and smoke forced the shutdown of a major oil sands project.

The fire that has already prompted the evacuation of 88,000 people from the city of Fort McMurray was on its way to doubling in size on Saturday, the seventh day of what is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Canada's history.

SEE ALSO: Wildfire in Alberta's energy heartland forces thousands to flee

Police escorted another convoy of evacuees out of the oil sands region north of Fort McMurray, taking them on a harrowing journey through burned out parts of the city and billowing smoke. Some 1,600 structures are believed to have been lost.

With temperatures on Saturday expected to rise as high as 28 Celsius (82 Fahrenheit), officials said the weather was hindering efforts to fight the wildfire.

"It is a dangerous, unpredictable fire, an absolutely vicious fire that is feeding off of an extremely dry boreal forest," Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a media briefing.

The fire had scorched at least 156,000 hectares (385,000 acres) by Saturday morning, the Alberta government said. Officials warned late on Friday that the area affected by the fire, which they then said was 101,000 hectares, could double in size by the end of Saturday.

More than 500 firefighters are battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray, along with 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers, the Alberta government said.

Within Fort McMurray, visibility is often less than 30 feet (9 meters) due to the smoke, making it still very dangerous to circulate in the city, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Inspector Kevin Kunetzki told reporters at a highway checkpoint.

Despite the fire's rapid spread, Goodale said there was no indication that oil infrastructure was at risk.

But the Syncrude oil sands project said Saturday it will shut down its northern Alberta operation and remove all personnel from the site due to smoke. There was no imminent threat from the fire.

At least 10 oil sand operators have cut production due to evacuations and other emergency measures that complicated delivery of petroleum by rail, pipeline and highway.

About half of Canada's oil sands production capacity has been taken offline by the conflagration, according to a Reuters estimate.

Click through for images of the devastating wildfire:

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Alberta, Canada Wildfire -- Fort McMurray
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Canada wildfire explodes in size, fed by 'extremely' dry forest
The wildfires glow underneath The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Two RCMP police officers wear gas masks in the smoke from the wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
People wait at a roadblock as smoke rises from wildfires near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from the wildfire burning near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, in this image from British astronaut Tim Peake aboard the International Space Station May 6, 2016. REUTERS/European Space Agency/Tim Peake via social media/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
A massive wildfire, which caused a mandatory evacuation, rages south of Fort McMurray near Anzac, Alberta, Canada May 4, 2016. . Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A flock of birds fly as smoke billows from the Fort McMurray wildfires in Kinosis, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this image posted on twitter May 5, 2016. Courtesy CF Operations/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 08: Smoke fills the air as a police officer stands guard at a roadblock along Highway 63 leading into Fort McMurray on May 8, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 07: Smoke from wildfires drifts across the night sky on May 7, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A wildfire burns on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Saturday, May 7, 2016. Wildfires raging through Alberta have spread to the main oil-sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, knocking out an estimated 1 million barrels of production from Canada's energy hub. Fire officials say the out-of-control inferno may keep burning for months without significant rainfall. Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A huge plume of smoke from wildfires burning rises over Fort McMurray in this aerial photograph taken in Alberta, Canada, on Friday, May 6, 2016. The wildfires ravaging Canada's oil hub in northern Alberta have rapidly spread to an area bigger than New York city, prompting the air lift of more than 8,000 evacuees as firefighters seek to salvage critical infrastructure. Photographer: Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Smoke and flames can be seen along the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 6, 2016. Canadian police led convoys of cars through the burning ghost town of Fort McMurray Friday in a risky operation to get people to safety far to the south.In the latest chapter of the drama triggered by monster fires in Alberta's oil sands region, the convoys of 50 cars at a time are driving through the city at about 50-60 kilometers per hour (30-40 miles per hour) TV footage showed. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A Canadian Joint Operations Command aerial photo shows wildfires near neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this image posted on twitter May 5, 2016. Courtesy CF Operations/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: The remains of a charred bicycle sits in a residential neighborhood on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
ALBERTA, CANADA - MAY 05: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Aerial view of highway 63 south of Fort McMurray taken from a CH-146 Griffon helicopter on May 5, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces have air assets deployed in support of the Province of Alberta's wildfire emergency response efforts. (Photo by MCpl VanPutten / Department of National Defence in Canada / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: A swing set with the swings burned away sits in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
FORT MCMURRAY, AB - MAY 06: Home foundations and shells of vehicles are nearly all that remain in a residential neighborhood destroyed by a wildfire on May 6, 2016 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada Wildfires, which are still burning out of control, have forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents from the town. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
VERMILLION PASS, CANADA - APRIL 26: A forest in the Kootenay National Park destroyed by fire is viewed on April 26, 2016 at Vermillion Pass, Alberta, Canada. Kootenay National Park borders Banff Nationa Park and features glaciers, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls, and snowcapped mountains. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
A convoy of cars sporadically heads South down Highway 63 after being stranded at a work camp north of Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 6, 2016. Canada on May 5, 2016 began airlifting to safety up to 25,000 people from the city of Fort McMurray forced from their homes by raging forest fires in Alberta's oil sands region.The authorities ordered the oil city of 100,000 people to be evacuated after firefighters backed by air tankers and helicopters failed to prevent the monster blaze from engulfing entire neighborhoods. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman picks through donated clothing and goods at a makeshift evacuee center in Lac la Biche, Alberta on May 5, 2016, after fleeing forest fires north of Fort McMurray. Raging wildfires pressed in on the Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray Thursday after more than 80,000 people were forced to flee, abandoning fire-gutted neighborhoods in a chaotic evacuation. No casualties have been reported from the monster blaze, which swept across Alberta's oil sands region driven by strong winds and hot, dry weather. / AFP / Cole Burston (Photo credit should read COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Exhausted and now living out of his truck, Fort McMurray resident Thomis Jonasson fills his vehicle with gas before heading towards Lac La Biche after evacuating his city of 62,000 due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Ron Laybolt calls family from a parking lot in Conklin, Alta. after Fort McMurray, a city of 62,000, was evacuated due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Wendy Tremblay, resident of Conklin, Alta., prepares cots for residents of Fort McMurray as they prepare to assemble in Conklin, Alta. after their city of 62,000 was evacuated due to raging wildfires on May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
Fort McMurray resident Crystal Maltais buckles in her daughter, Mckennah Stapley, as they prepare to leave Conklin, Alberta, for Lac La Biche after evacuating their home in Fort McMurray on Tuesday May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin
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Earlier in the week most evacuees headed south by car on Alberta Highway 63, the only land route out of the area, in a slow-moving exodus that left many temporarily stranded on the roadside as they ran out of gasoline.

But other residents who initially sought shelter in oil camps and settlements north of the city found themselves cut off in overcrowded conditions. They were forced on Friday and Saturday to retrace their route back through Fort McMurray on Highway 63 as flames continued to spread.

Goodale said it was important to move those people south, given the risk that winds could shift and push the fire to the northwest of its current location.

The full extent of property losses in Fort McMurray has yet to be determined, but one analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion).

Entire neighborhoods were reduced to ruins, but most evacuees fled without knowing the fate of their own homes. The majority got away with few possessions, some forced to leave pets behind.

Stephane Dumais, thumbing through his insurance documents at an evacuation center at Lac La Biche, said he has thought about moving away. But the idea doesn't sit well with the heavy equipment operator for a logging company.

"To me that's like giving up on my city," he said. "As long as it takes to rebuild it, let's work together. It's not going to be the same as it used to be."

(Additional reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto,; Writing by Jeffrey Hodgson; Editing by Digby Lidstone and Mary Milliken)

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