SA firefighters arrive in Canada to fight wildfire

The Canadian government had requested help from abroad, as the blazes continue to burn out of control.

FILE: Over 300 South African firefighters board a Boeing 777 to Canada to assist Fort McMurray in battling raging wild fires, which have been blazing for over a month. 29 May 2016. Picture: Supplied.

CAPE TOWN - More than 300 South African firefighters have arrived in Canada.

They are to join a massive effort to bring raging wildfires in the Alberta province under control.

The Canadian government had requested help from abroad, as the blazes continue to burn out of control.

Group organiser from Working on Fire, Linton Rensburg, says it is a golden opportunity for South African firefighters to get more experience.

"These firefighters are not volunteers, we haven't taken them off the streets. They're professionally trained and qualified and we're quite confident that come challenges they will face in Canada, that they're well prepared for this job."

Most of them have not been out of the country, or on an aeroplane before.

Meanwhile, Suncor Energy Inc.'s facilities north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, are expected to partially restart by the end of the week, the company said on Sunday, the latest sign Canadian oil sands producers are coming back online after a massive wildfire.

The start-up of Suncor's base plant and MacKay River sites is under way, with "initial production" expected by the end of the week, the company said in a statement, which noted initial production at its Firebag site began early last week.

A spokeswoman declined to specify the production volume expected as operations resume.

Bitumen capacities at Firebag and MacKay River are 203,000 and 38,000 barrels per day, respectively, and the base plant upgrader facility's capacity is 350,000 barrels a day, Suncor said.

Energy companies have begun restarting operations as the threat from the wildfire recedes. Fort McMurray itself still sits largely empty after its entire population of nearly 90,000 was evacuated earlier this month.

The wildfire, expected to be Canada's costliest natural disaster, cut Canadian oil output by a million barrels a day.

The inferno has charred more than 500,000 hectares across the northern part of the province of Alberta and crossed into the neighboring province of Saskatchewan.

Rain and higher humidity in recent days have helped firefighting efforts. The Alberta government said firefighting conditions would improve through the weekend.

Authorities last week lifted evacuation orders on all work camps in the area and many oil facilities, including those of Suncor and its majority-owned Syncrude.

"There has been no damage to Suncor's assets and all sites have enhanced fire mitigation and protection," the company said.

Suncor said it had moved more than 4,000 employees and contractors back into the region for its restart efforts and would move 3,500 more in the coming week.

It also said Syncrude was planning its own return to operations. A Syncrude spokesman declined to comment on a time line for restarting operations.

Some of the evacuees from Fort McMurray may be allowed to return as soon as Wednesday, if air quality improves and other safety conditions are met.

Additional information by Reuters