Canadian crews battle wildfire threatening remote western town

By Ismail Shakil

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Firefighters on Monday battled a large wildfire heading towards a remote western Canadian town as winds and tinder dry conditions threatened to spread the flames further, a provincial minister said.

The largely evacuated town of Fort Nelson in British Columbia is in the line of one of the season's first major wildfires that have spread to 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) across Western Canada and are sending smoke plumes over five provinces, as well as parts of the northern U.S.

Bowinn Ma, British Columbia's minister of emergency management and climate readiness, said conditions in the north of the Pacific province - an area that includes Fort Nelson - were extremely challenging.

"With no major precipitation in the forecast ahead and winds that can they can pick up at any time, we ... are extremely concerned," she told a televised briefing. "We may begin to see volatile wildfire activity later this afternoon."

The fire, which started on Friday, covered over 5,280 hectares (13,050 acres) and had reached 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) west of Fort Nelson by Monday morning.

After its worst-ever-wildfire season last year, Canada experienced one of its warmest winters with low to non-existent snow in many areas, raising fears of a hot summer triggering blazes in forests and wild lands amid an ongoing drought.

Northeastern British Columbia and the northern region of neighboring Alberta are the heartland of Canada's energy industry. There have been no reports of any disruption to oil and gas extraction.

In Alberta, authorities said there were two wildfires of note, including one near Fort McMurray. In 2016, a huge wildfire in the major oil town forced the evacuation of 90,000 residents and shut in more than a million barrels per day of oil output.

Six crews of firefighters, back by 13 helicopters, worked on Monday to establish a containment line near Fort McMurray. Helicopters equipped with night vision had dropped water on the fire with buckets overnight, the local municipality said.

Residents were placed on an evacuation alert on Friday, though favorable weather conditions have kept the fire about 16 km away, officials said on Monday. Light rain showers were expected to aid firefighting, they added.

"At the moment, the winds are not pushing in the direction of the community. But of course conditions are always subject to change," Alberta Wildfire official Christie Tucker told a televised briefing.

The federal government last month said Canada faces another catastrophic wildfire season as it forecast higher-than-normal spring and summer temperatures across much of the country.

(Additional reporting by Nia Williams in British Columbia and Saadeq Ahmed in Toronto;Editing by David Ljunggren and Marguerita Choy)