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Rain helpful, but not enough to make major impact on fire near Fort McMurray: officials

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Rain has dampened the flames of a 20,000-hectare blaze near northern Alberta oilsands hub Fort McMurray, but not shrunk the wildfire or made enough impact for officials to call displaced residents back.

The area received another 10 millimetres of rain overnight.

"We're much less likely to see intense fire activity. So that means open flame that can catch trees on fire," explained Alberta Wildfire public information officer Josee St-Onge the next morning in a public update.

"But fires like this, in this kind of environment, can burn into the ground. They still smoulder, even if the top layer of the soil has been wet… So there's still work to be done to dig up those hotspots, make sure they're exposed, and that some water has been put on them." 

According to an overnight scan, the wildfire – officially named MWF-017 – grew slightly on Thursday and was last sized at 19,582 hectares. (It has not shrunk from previous size estimates, St-Onge clarified on Friday, but has been more accurately measured.)

It was the only wildfire burning out of control in Alberta's protected forest areas Friday morning.

At 10:30 a.m., officials could not say whether visibility would be good enough for helicopter operators to fly ground crews out to the frontline, which is inaccessible by road.

The rain has also seen the fire danger level drop to low, although St-Onge said that could change quickly.

"It's more of a temporary reprieve. It means that new fires are less likely to start – which is really good – but we also want to take a long-term picture when we look at wildfire prevention. And that's why there's still a fire ban and an off-highway vehicle restriction in place."

That was also the reason given by municipality officials when asked why some 2,200 displaced residents from four evacuated neighbourhoods couldn't go home sooner than Tuesday, as has been offered as a potential timeline.

Jody Butz, the Rural Municipality of Wood Buffalo's director of emergency management, said a team was still working to determine the parameters of a safe return.

"We are going to make sure it is safe to do so and that's important that we look at those determinants that the incident management team is coming up with and make those before we are considering it safe to return."

St-Onge said Alberta Wildfire considers the weather, the number of firefighting resources at its disposal, as well as the fire conditions on the frontline before advising that residents can be allowed to return.

"We want to make sure that any recommendation we make to bring people back would take into consideration the long term plan as well," she added.

Forecasts are predicting the area could get another 20 to 80 millimetres of rain over the weekend.

St-Onge said every bit buys crews more time.

"As each day progresses, we make more progress on containment. The risk lowers as we're able to put in more work. So all of this is very encouraging."

In total, 224 firefighters, 22 helicopters and 57 pieces of heavy equipment are assigned to the area.

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