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Wildfire burns out of control near Suncor's Firebag oilsands site

The Suncor Firebag oil sands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh The Suncor Firebag oil sands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., Tuesday, July 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
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A wildfire burning out of control in northern Alberta on Thursday prompted Suncor Energy Inc. to withdraw all non-essential workers from its Firebag oilsands site.

The company, Canada's second-largest oilsands producer by volume, confirmed Thursday that it was "moving to essential personnel only at site."

A Suncor spokeswoman said the move was a precautionary measure, but added the situation was being monitored and further action would be taken if necessary.

Suncor said its other oilsands operations were not at risk.

As of Thursday afternoon, a wildfire spanning more than 21 square kilometres in size was burning out of control about 70 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray, Alta.

The Alberta government said the fire was approximately eight kilometres northeast of Suncor's Firebag main plant, 14 kilometres northeast of Suncor's Firebag Aerodrome and 16 kilometres east of Imperial Oil's Kearl oilsands facility.

Imperial Oil said Thursday its operations were not affected, though it continues to monitor the situation closely.

Suncor's Firebag oilsands site is the company's largest in situ operation. In oilsands terminology, in situ means using steam to heat up and loosen underground bitumen that is too deep underground to be accessed through surface mining.

The facility produces up to 215,000 barrels of oil per day, and employs a fly-in, fly-out work force from across the country.

The company's website says there are typically about 400 people at the site each day.

In May 2016, the massive wildfire that destroyed parts of the community of Fort McMurray also threatened major oilsands production facilities and forced the evacuation of thousands of workers.

During the peak of that crisis, more than one million barrels per day of Canadian oil production were shut in.

Firebag takes its name from the leather bag used by Indigenous peoples to carry hot coals for fire-starting purposes.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2024.