Northern Alberta wildfires threaten Suncor Firebag site, community of Chateh

The wildfire burning near Suncor's Firebag oilsands site grew significantly on Thursday night.  (Alberta Wildfire/X - image credit)
The wildfire burning near Suncor's Firebag oilsands site grew significantly on Thursday night. (Alberta Wildfire/X - image credit)

Firefighters are preparing for a difficult weekend as wildfires threaten an oilsands production facility in northeastern Alberta and a small community in the northwest.

Suncor Energy is curtailing production at its Firebag oilsands site in the Fort McMurray region as a precaution due to a wildfire burning nearby.

Several wildfires in the area make up the Cattail Complex, but MWF047 is the largest wildfire of the group. It covers about 12,200 hectares and is classified as out of control.

Melissa Story, a provincial information officer with Alberta Wildfire, told CBC on Saturday that the fire had "minimal growth on it [on Friday]."

"It is still a pretty significant size at over 12,000 hectares, but it hasn't really grown since yesterday," she said.

The fire is about eight kilometres northeast of Suncor's Firebag site, about 50 km northeast of Fort McKay and 70 km northeast of Fort McMurray. Despite the fire's significant growth, Alberta Wildfire said there has been no movement toward infrastructure.

Suncor did not specify how much production had been reduced but said the Firebag site will be kept ready to resume full output as soon as conditions are safe.

Fire threatens Chateh

Meanwhile, in the High Level Forest Area, a wildfire about 25 kilometres from Chateh, Alta., has grown to about 580 hectares. It grew around 280 hectares between Friday night and midday Saturday.

"We're expecting to see more extreme fire behaviour on it in the coming days, especially with the weather conditions that we're seeing there," Story said Saturday.

Chateh is part of the Dene Tha' First Nation, which also includes the communities of Bushe River and Meander River.

An Alberta Emergency Alert was issued Thursday night for people in the area of Chateh to prepare for a possible evacuation due to the threat of wildfire. On Friday the alert was updated since the fire is being held, but residents are still being told to be prepared to leave if necessary.

Evacuation orders for Chateh residents were issued in both 2022 and 2023 — first because of flooding and then because of wildfire.

Story said Friday heavy equipment is working to build a firebreak between the wildfire and the community.

Story added that this weekend's hot weather will be a challenge for firefighters battling the Fort McMurray region and High Level area fires.

"We're absolutely going to see increased fire behaviour this weekend," Story said Friday. "We're going to see those elevated temperatures, which is going to increase the fire danger as well as fire behaviour for both of those areas."

With hot weather and elevated fire risk this weekend, Story said campers need to be extra cautious and be sure to follow all fire restrictions or fire bans.