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Canadian towns scramble to take precautions against wildfire

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After a wildfire blazed a path of destruction in the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray, Canadian towns in heavily wooded northern Alberta are scrambling to take precautions against fire as hot weather and dry vegetation increase the risk.

[OTTAWA] After a wildfire blazed a path of destruction in the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray, Canadian towns in heavily wooded northern Alberta are scrambling to take precautions against fire as hot weather and dry vegetation increase the risk.

The wildfire, which forced 88,000 residents to evacuate Fort McMurray, grew to 229,000 hectares (560,000 acres) on Tuesday.

Half a dozen communities located in forest in the western province of Alberta were variously clearing out dead wood, pruning back the most flammable kinds of trees and banning open fires, officials said.

In Whitecourt, 180 km (112 miles) northwest of the provincial capital of Edmonton, officials are aggressively enforcing a ban on all-terrain vehicles and looking at installing giant sprinklers on the edge of town.

"The Fort McMurray situation has everyone thinking, that's for sure," said Jay Granley, director of community safety in the 10,000-strong town.

Communities located in forested areas will likely be reviewing their insurance arrangements, said Insurance Bureau of Canada spokesman Steve Kee, though none surveyed by Reuters said they plan to get more coverage.

The northern or boreal forest covers 270 million hectares (1 million square miles), stretching across most of northern Canada.

University of Alberta professor Mike Flannigan, who specializes in wildfires, said almost every town in the forest was at risk. "This is a wake-up call," he said.

"People ... think this is a one in a lifetime thing, a one off, a fluke, but it's not." Efforts over the past century to fight fires rather than letting them burn have caused a build-up of dead organic matter. Much of Alberta is dry after a mild winter and warm spring.

Many towns take advantage of a provincial program which funds the removal of combustible material and tree pruning.

Slave Lake, which lost a third of its buildings in a 2011 fire, will ask Alberta for more money so it can keep the program going forever, said Brian Vance, chief administrative officer.

Using fire-resistant materials for roofs and sidings would also help but this is not obligatory under Alberta's building code, a frustration for some. "We can't force people to use metal roofing," said Mr Vance.

Local authorities do have some room to maneuver. Peace River, 120 miles north west of Slave Lake, requires substantive fire proofing for new developments with houses close together.

Many towns complained that it is difficult to keep hold of firefighters, who are unpaid.

Officials said that while they are trying hard, nothing can stop a major blaze and the priority is keeping people safe. "In many cases that means getting them out of the way while the thing burns through," said Deborah Juch, manager of legislative services in a region that includes the town of Wabasca-Desmarais.

REUTERS