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Plans to quickly restart oilsands production in northern Alberta have been turned upside down after the Fort McMurray wildfire erupted with renewed vengeance Monday, forcing thousands of workers to scramble to safety.
Oilsands miners, including Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy, had been gradually returning staff to the area to begin the process of restarting production at facilities undamaged by fire but shut down because of the threat.
However, a change in wind direction sent the rapidly moving fire north toward oilsands projects Monday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of about 4,000 workers from 12 work camps, according to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Brion Energy, a company owned by Chinese giant PetroChina, said it evacuated 106 people from two work camps at the construction site of its MacKay River thermal oilsands project.
The company had reduced its workforce from about 400 to 32 as a precautionary measure shortly after the fire began about two weeks ago, said Brion spokeswoman Kristi Baron.
"We ... began to bring in a few more (workers) thinking that everybody was in the clear," she said. "We’d been watching it very, very carefully."
She said the fire’s change of direction caught the company by surprise and will likely delay first production from the facility, which is expected to gradually ramp up to capacity of 35,000 barrels of bitumen a day from wells using steam to melt the heavy sticky oil and allow it to be pumped to surface.
"We were nearing mechanical completion and aiming for first steam in the fall — until the fire," she said.
"We expect the fire to have some kind of impact on project timing but at this point it’s kind of hard to know."
Will Gibson of Syncrude Canada said more than 200 of his company’s workers were moved twice on Monday, from a work camp to its Mildred Lake mine north of Fort McMurray, then by bus to Edmonton when the evacuation order was extended to Mildred Lake.
"They were part of our team that was looking to safely restart our operation," he said.
About 100 employees were left to maintain and stabilize operations at Mildred Lake and Syncrude’s Aurora mine site 35 kilometres farther north, Gibson said.
In an update on its website Tuesday, Suncor said it was moving personnel from work camps and its base plant to other lodges farther north, adding that it had started a staged and orderly shutdown of base plant operations.
"When it is safe to do so, we will continue implementing our restart plans," the website said.
Deputy chief economist Pedro Antunes of the Conference Board of Canada said the wildfire setback means a study of its economic impact released Tuesday morning will have to be revisited, although it could still prove accurate.
"Right now, as far as I understand, most of the evacuations have been preventative, so it’s still possible we will see production ramp up as expected," he said. "We had assumed most of the production would be back up by the end of this month."
The Conference Board estimated average oilsands output would fall by 1.2 million barrels of oil a day for two weeks, translating into $985 million in lost gross domestic product.
Antunes said the latest evacuations could cause another week of outage but are unlikely to lead to shutdowns of a month or more.
The board expects rebuilding efforts to add roughly $1.3 billion in real GDP to Alberta’s economy next year and construction in the region is expected to be higher than normal in 2018 and possibly 2019.
-The Canadian Press