By Nia Williams and Scott DiSavino
(Reuters) -Firefighters have made "significant progress" in tackling wildfires in Alberta thanks to rain and cooler temperatures, provincial government officials said on Wednesday, as Canadian natural gas exports to the U.S. rebounded after nearly three weeks of lower flows.
Many oil and gas companies that shut in production as a precaution have restarted operations or are preparing to do so. At their height the fires shuttered at least 319,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 3.7% of national production, and forced around 30,000 Albertans to evacuate their homes.
Around 7,000 people remain under evacuation orders and 65 wildfires are still burning, but the cooler weather conditions are helping firefighting efforts, said Christie Tucker, information unit manager with Alberta Wildfire.
"The extreme rate of growth we saw in these wildfires earlier this month has now slowed," Tucker said.
Canada's main oil- and gas-producing province is experiencing what officials called an "unprecedented" start to wildfire season, which runs until October. So far this year there have been 521 wildfires and more than 1 million hectares burned, roughly five times the average burned in a typical season.
The easing wildfires mean producers are preparing to restart any oil and gas facilities that are still shuttered, said Tristan Goodman, CEO of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.
"It's not yet back to normal, but now people are getting ready because the fires are under control," Goodman said.
Canadian natural gas exports to the U.S. this week returned to levels seen before the wildfires, causing U.S. gas futures to plunge about 10%. Canada supplies about 8% of the gas consumed in, or exported from, the U.S. [NGA/]
Last week, U.S. gas prices jumped about 14% due in part to the reduction in supplies from Canada.
Data provider Refinitiv said the amount of gas exported from Canada to the United States was on track to hold near a three-week high of 8.1 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) for a second day in a row on Wednesday.
On May 17, the wildfires forced Canadian producers to cut exports to a 25-month low of just 6.4 bcfd.
Over the past few weeks, gas flows from Canada to the U.S. averaged just 7.2 bcfd, well below the 8.3-bcfd average amount of gas Canada exported to the U.S. since the start of the year.
(Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Nia Williams in British Columbia; Editing by Sharon Singleton and Leslie Adler)