Image: NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

The wildfire that swept through Fort McMurray two weeks ago has now breached a critical firebreak, threatening Canada’s largest oil production facilities, and forcing the evacuation of thousands more workers. As seen from space, this ongoing wildfire is a horrific sight to behold.

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Plans to restart oilsands production in northern Alberta were put on hold this week when a change in wind direction sent the lingering wildfire north towards critical oil sands projects. Some 4,000 workers from a dozen work camps, including those run by Syncrude Canada and Suncor Energy, had to be evacuated. The fire’s change of direction caught the companies by surprise, delaying a much-needed return to production. A worker camp with 665 rooms burned to the ground yesterday.

Production facilities have been in a state of limbo since the first week of May, when the wildfire destroyed a significant portion of Fort McMurray, a boom town that’s home to thousands of oilsands workers. The fires have cut Canadian oil output by one million barrels a day. As of yesterday, the out-of-control blaze covered 877,224 acres (355,000 hectares), up from 704,250 acres (285,000 hectares) on Monday.

Image: NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response.

Earlier this week, the Suomi-NPP satellite captured a natural color image of active fires near Fort McMurray. Areas outlined in red represent hot spots where the satellite’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) detected warm surface temperatures caused by the fires. Thick plumes of smoke can be seen wafting to the northeast.

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So far, none of the oil sands have caught fire, but precautions are being made to ensure that they don’t. Many production facilities are deemed low-risk because much of the outlying vegetation has been cleared and there’s plenty of gravel on site.

It’s not immediately clear when the wildfires will be extinguished, but some estimates place it at months. And given its unpredictable nature, it could be a while before oil production returns to normal in northern Alberta.

[NASA Earth Observatory, Calgary Herald, Reuters]