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How much damage could the Fort McMurray fire have caused if it had hit the oil sands?

(Source: Twitter @ccccrystal__)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Alberta premier Rachel Notley is meeting with oil company executives today, both to assess the damage and to try to figure out just how quickly production can ramp back up again after that massive wildfire.

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But if another major fire were to hit the actual oil sands, the environmental impact could be big — though not catastrophic.

The worst-case scenario would be if the flames hit one of the upgrader plants, where whatever existing product was in the pipes would burn off, creating a huge cloud of toxic smoke.

“That could cause a serious fire. But it’s not as if there is a continual running source of combustible petrochemicals available. The upgraders will burn whatever they have in the tanks, and yes that will emit a whole pile of smoke,” says UBC’s Dr. Douw Steyn, who specializes in air pollution meteorology.

“And that smoke will disperse around northern Alberta and probably into northern Saskatchewan.”

But he says we wouldn’t see fields burning like in Kuwait during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“The tar sands themselves are highly-unlikely to burn the way the Kuwait oil wells did. Because as I say, the tar is very heavy tar so it has few of the volatiles that burn easily. Certainly, this is not the Lac Megantic tanker fire,” says Steyn.

“Tar sands deposits are underground, trapped in gravel and sand. The tar must be extracted and then upgraded.”