By Nia Williams
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Firefighters were preparing to tackle hot weather and gusting winds on Wednesday as they battled a massive wildfire raging near Fort McMurray, Alberta, that threatens oil sands facilities and work camps north of the city.
The fire forced the evacuation of thousands of workers on Tuesday, prolonging a shutdown that cut Canadian oil output by a million barrels a day. It destroyed a 665-room lodge for oil sand workers, then blazed east toward other camps.
Winds forecast for Wednesday were expected to push the uncontrolled blaze further east, putting oil operations in its path, officials said. The 355,000-hectare (877,224-acre) fire was also stretching toward the Saskatchewan border.
"We expect the fire to spread on the easterly side," Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison said on a call late on Tuesday.
The wildfire is taking a toll on Alberta's economy, with one study estimating lost oil production to cut gross domestic product (GDP) by more than C$70 million ($54.1 million) a day.
About 8,000 workers were evacuated from camps and facilities north of Fort McMurray on Tuesday, with both Suncor Energy Inc and Syncrude, majority owned by Suncor, removing all but bare essential staff from their major operations.
None of the oil sands have caught fire, and the industry has redoubled efforts to ensure facilities are well-protected. Officials said facilities have been cleared of vegetation and have lots of gravel on site, reducing their fire risk.
The roughly 90,000 residents of Fort McMurray were growing frustrated over the lack of an estimate for their return to the oil sands hub, which they were forced to flee about two weeks ago.
Late on Tuesday officials told a townhall meeting with residents they were narrowing down return dates that they hoped to share "very, very soon," but added the city remained unsafe because of hot spots and the fire threat.
"On the ground here, it is still very, very smoky. The air quality is not good at all and it is not safe to return," said municipality representative Dennis Fraser. "The number one thing is the safety of our citizens."
Prior to the latest setback, lost oil production was expected to average about 1.2 million barrels a day for 14 days, or roughly C$985 million ($763 million) in lost real GDP, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
($1=1.2934 Canadian dollars)
(Writing and additional reporting by Julie Gordon in Vancouver)