CALGARY/LAC LA BICHE, Alberta (Reuters) - Workers for one of the largest oil sands companies affected by a wildfire in northern Canada will begin returning to the shuttered facilities on Thursday, a union official said, the latest indication the key petroleum production area was slowly coming back online.
Meanwhile, also on Wednesday, the premier of the province of Alberta and the head of the Canadian Red Cross announced that residents of Fort McMurray, the oil-boom town that was evacuated last week because of the fire, would be offered direct financial aid.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established an ad hoc cabinet committee to coordinate federal relief efforts. Trudeau will tour the fire zone on Friday.
Ken Smith, president of Unifor Local 707, the union that represents 3,400 Suncor Energy Inc (SU.TO) workers, said the company would start to fly employees back to its oil sands base plant from Thursday.
“It will take a few days to get the plant up and in condition to start handling feed,” Smith said. Facilities north of Fort McMurray that had been shuttered largely because of heavy smoke rather than fire were likely to come back on line first, in a matter of days in many cases.
Roughly 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of output were shut down during the fire, about half of the oil sands’ usual daily production.
Late Wednesday, Enbridge Inc (ENB.TO) said it had restarted its 550,000 bpd Line 18 pipeline, which carries crude from the company’s Cheecham terminal 380 kilometres (236 miles) south to the regional crude trading hub of Edmonton.
Enbridge also said crews were on site at its facilities in the Fort McMurray region and confirmed its terminals were not damaged by the wildfire.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSa.L) was the first company to resume operations in the area, restarting its Albian Sands mines at a reduced rate. The facility can produce up to 255,000 bpd.
Syncrude, controlled by Suncor, restarted power generation at its oil sands mine in Aurora, north of the city, on Tuesday as it began planning to resume operations. The site has a total capacity of around 315,000 bpd.
Dozens of repair trucks and other vehicles headed for the oil fields on Wednesday, driving north along the main highway into the area, a Reuters eyewitness said. Some were towing heavy equipment.
Still, some projects to the south and east of Fort McMurray remained unreachable as the fire threat persisted.
The town remained shut to residents.
“The area is still very ... dangerous with some hot spots still throughout the city and areas of concern,” said Kevin Kunetzki of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Around 300 RCMP members are patrolling the town and have found 100 homes showing signs of break-ins. This could be a result of concerned residents trying to check on neighbours, rather than burglars, he told a news conference in Edmonton.
The size of the fire was little changed on Wednesday at roughly 229,000 hectares (566,000 acres) and moving away from the community.
There are 700 firefighters, 32 helicopters, 13 air tankers and 83 pieces of heavy equipment units working on the Fort McMurray fire, the government said.
Alberta is making cash available immediately to the 90,000 evacuees from the fire zone. The funds, C$1,250 (£673) per adult and C$500 per child, would be distributed by debit cards beginning immediately to evacuees in Edmonton, Calgary and Lac La Biche.
Canadian Red Cross Chief Executive Conrad Sauve said his agency was making C$50 million in funds available to the relief effort now, out of C$67 million that had been raised so far. The money will be distributed as electronic funds transfers of C$600 for each adult and C$300 for each child, he said.
“This is the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one,” he told a news conference with Alberta premier Rachel Notley.
The local government council held its first meeting since the evacuations in Edmonton on Thursday. The mood was sombre and defiant.
Authorities in Lac la Biche, a small town south of Fort McMurray where many evacuees are staying, opened its fishing season four days early to provide temporary residents “with a well-deserved family recreational opportunity,” a statement said.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa, Liz Hampton in Calgary and Allison Martell in Toronto; Writing by Dan Burns in Toronto; Editing by Alan Crosby