Authorities say they have reached a turning point in the battle against an enormous wildfire and are hoping to get a “death grip'” on the blaze that has ravaged parts of Canada’s oil sands city 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 said he was “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,” he said.
With cooler temperatures expected in the next three or four days, he said firefighters should be able to put out hotspots and it has allowed them to further protect 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 397,831 acres. On Saturday officials expected the fire to double in size.
She said the city was safe for first responders and she would visit it on Monday to assess the damage.
Area MP David Yurdiga toured Fort McMurray on Sunday and said he was optimistic.
“We’ll be back on our feet a lot quicker than I thought we would be,” he said at a road block 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 neighbourhood in Fort McMurray and 80% of the homes are standing. Our treatment plant is functioning.”
“I toured probably every neighbourhood in Fort McMurray and 80% of the homes are standing. Some areas you don’t even know there was a fire.”
The Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, tweeted a picture of Sunday rainfall and wrote: “It was only for a few minutes but the sight of rain has never been so good.”
Ms Notley retweeted the picture and wrote: “Here’s hoping for much more!”
But public safety minister Ralph Goodale warned that while the firefighting efforts “may be turning a corner”, it was too early to celebrate and a lot of work remained.
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 on 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. Ms Notley, however, mentioned two youngsters who died in a traffic accident during the evacuation. her voice breaking when noting it was Mother’s Day.
Emily Ryan, 15, 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 neighbourhoods burned to the ground.
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray in the heart of Canada’ oil sands, where the fire has destroyed 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.
Mr Morrison said the fire had not reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray and that the mines north were not under threat. Ms Notley said there would be a meeting with the energy industry on Tuesday.
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 on Friday and Saturday.
Just over 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 appealed for residents eager to find out if their homes are still standing to be patient.
“We are really working hard on that, it’s a complicated process, what’s damaged, what’s left,” he said. “We really will get that to you as soon as we possibly can. We care about all of you.”
Lac La Biche, normally a sleepy town of 2,500 about 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 came through The Bold Centre sports venue.