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Rain helps keep Fort McMurray wildfire from growing, but 6,600 remain out of homes

Justin Massie, wildfire specialist with Fire & Flood Emergency Service Ltd., adjusts a valve on a wildfire suppression water cannon along Highway 881 near Gregoire Lake Estates southeast of Fort McMurray, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

A wildfire that has forced thousands out of their homes in the Alberta oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray was held in place Thursday, as rain and cooler temperatures swept the area.

Alberta Wildfire information officer Christie Tucker said the blaze remained out of control – the only such designated fire in the province – but it did not grow overnight and remained at 200 square kilometres in size.

“We’re seeing rain and cooler temperatures in much of the province this week, but unfortunately the northern part of the province is expected to stay drier and warmer,” Tucker told a news conference in Edmonton.

The blaze remained just under six kilometres from the southwest outskirts of the community and less than five kilometres from the main highway south.

In Fort McMurray, crews woke up to light rain, overcast skies and cooler temperatures.

Water from above was augmented with help on the ground.

Thick red hoses mounted to water cannons blasted enough water into dry ditches to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool every 90 minutes.

The hoses, six kilometres of them, are powered by a batteries of 600-horsepower pumps.

The soakers help protect buildings, homes and vital routes in and out of the city against flames that on Tuesday forced the evacuation of 6,600 residents out of four neighbourhoods.

They represent one of the lessons learned after the catastrophic wildfire that scorched the community in 2016, forcing 80,000 residents out of the city and surrounding area.

“The system was designed after 2016,” said Derek Sommerville, a wildfire specialist with Fire and Flood Emergency Services in Alberta.

“We can cover large distances. That frees up traditional mobile resources like fire trucks and helicopters to deal with higher priority areas.”

David Warwick, who was forced to leave his home this week, said the emergency preparedness has improved since 2016.

“They’re definitely a little better prepared with the notices that came out,” he said.

Lloyd Sawatzky also believes the province’s approach has improved. He came from the community of Slave Lake to help direct traffic and conduct checks in the vacated areas of Fort McMurray at the request of the new Regional Emergency Operations Centre.

“This is the first year they did it,” Sawatzky said.

Evacuated residents are likely to remain out of their homes until at least next Tuesday. The rest of the city and other surrounding subdivisions remain under evacuation alert.

Other fires across Western Canada have forced residents out of their homes.

In northeastern British Columbia, a widening area around Fort Nelson, a town of 4,700, remained under evacuation. On Wednesday evening, it had covered about 127 square kilometres.

The BC Wildfire Service said light rain and cooler temperatures were in the forecast and could stop the fire from spreading closer to the town.

In Manitoba, about 500 people remained out of the remote northwestern community of Cranberry Portage.

Officials said the fire there was about 80 per cent contained and residents might be able to return this weekend.