Canadian oil sands hub floods, some residents evacuate amid virus fight

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) – Floods have forced mandatory evacuations in parts of Fort McMurray, the hub for Canada’s oil sands industry, even as the province of Alberta tries to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, ordered mandatory evacuations of some residents that began on Sunday and were expanded on Monday. Ice jams caused the Athabasca River to spill its banks.

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the federal government was looking “very urgently” at ways to help the area.

“The fact that flooding season and in due course, forest fire season, is coinciding with coronavirus in Canada is posing some special challenges,” Freeland said Monday in Ottawa.

The area, like most of Canada, is subject to restrictions on movement and most businesses are closed.

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott described the situation as a “crisis” on social media, and he has asked for military help.

Alberta expected some crossover of the pandemic with floods and fires, and it and will ensure that evacuation centers reflect heightened standards for physical distancing and sanitation, said the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Wood Buffalo’s food bank flooded and was forced to close, it said on Twitter. Many food banks have seen a spike in demand during the pandemic.

Coronavirus infections in Alberta have risen in recent days, due mainly to outbreaks further south. Alberta Health Services’ north zone, including Wood Buffalo, had 196 confirmed cases and 14 deaths as of Monday, according to the provincial ministry.

Karim Zariffa, executive director of the Oil Sands Community Alliance, whose members include oil-producing companies, said he was not aware of any flooding on their sites.

Some oil sands companies have deployed emergency personnel to help pump water out of flooded areas, he said.

Oil sands sites are running with fewer workers due to the pandemic, and many are reducing production amid low prices.

The region was forced to shut some sites in 2016 due to wildfires.

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing Aurora Ellis

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