Inside The Alberta Wildfires
Don't expect life as you knew it, Alberta premier warns Fort McMurray residents returning home next month
18 May, 2016
The massive operation to return residents to Fort McMurray is set to begin June 1, nearly a month after 88,000 people were forced to flee a wildfire still burning up much of northeastern Alberta.
Premier Rachel Notley outlined her government’s long-awaited re-entry plan Wednesday, saying residents will soon be allowed to return to their homes in a phased, multi-day process starting with the least damaged areas.
However, she warned that residents will not be coming home to life as they left it. While essential food, power and urgent medical care will be available, other amenities such as clean drinking water and full hospital services will take longer to restore.
As well, the premier noted the entire plan is dependent on meeting several safety factors, including an end to the ongoing threat of the fire, reasonable air quality and functional traffic controls.
“We know people want to return home as soon as it is safe to do so, and that is what we are working towards,” Notley said Wednesday from the provincial operations centre in Edmonton. “We don’t want to have people completely commit to a certain date, but at the same time we’ve been hearing more and more that people need to have some idea of the dates we’re dealing with. We hope we’ve achieved that balance.”
Asked how confident she was the city can be made ready over the next two weeks, Notley said the timeline is based on the “best guess” of officials on the ground.
The most damaged communities, including Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways, will be re-entered last. People whose homes have been destroyed or severely damaged will be allowed to visit their properties, though how this will be done was still being worked out.
It is expected the visits will be conducted under police escort, and the properties will be fenced off. Scott Long, director of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said officials are hoping to accommodate residents wanting to retrieve any lock boxes or valuables that might have survived.
For evacuees who lost their homes, Notley said support is available through the Wildfire Evacuation Transitional Accommodation Benefit. The benefit provides eligible applicants with funding to pay for rent and utility connections for up to 90 days from the date of evacuation.
Appearing alongside the premier was Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, Fort McMurray’s MLA, who said the announcement of the re-entry plan brings “a great sense of relief.”
Jean, who lost his home in Fort McMurray to the fire, choked up as he vowed that traumatized residents will see their city come back stronger than ever.
“We will rebuild our city and it will be better than ever,” he said. “I will have my tool belt on and my shovel in my hand, and we will clean it up and rebuild it.”
Mayor Melissa Blake was also in attendance, saying the timeline makes the long journey back “a little bit shorter.”
The province said a phased approach is necessary to ensure a smooth flow of traffic on Highway 63, adding that residents can come back later than their specified re-entry date. The process is expected to be complete by June 15, which is also the day the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is scheduled to resume full operations.
Air quality in Fort McMurray hit a score of 51 on Wednesday morning, but then reduced to 11 later in the day. A score of 10 is considered extreme.
A boil water advisory is expected to be in place until the end of June to allow officials to flush the treatment plant and make sure it is working correctly.
Plans were also being developed to deal with a mountain of rotten food and ruined refrigerators and freezers in people’s homes.
As for the fire, officials said it has now burned 423,000 hectares and is still out control north of Fort McMurray. The blaze, which destroyed Horizon North’s Blacksand Executive Lodge and its 665 beds Tuesday, remains a threat to other evacuated oilsands work camps south of Fort McKay.
“We feel fairly confident in the days ahead that if we see some rain, we will continue to have an established fire guard and burnt area that will make those areas more safe,” said senior wildfire officer Chad Morrison.
Oilsands sites that had to shut down will begin bringing workers back and restarting operations according to their own safety schedules, the province said.
Meanwhile, across the province, Fox Creek residents were being told to remain ready to flee with two hours’ notice.
In an update posted to the town’s website Wednesday, officials said an out-of-control wildfire was burning 11 kilometres northwest of Fox Creek. The fire hasn’t moved for a day, and local officials were hopeful forecasted rain will improve the situation.
The town is in the Municipal District of Greenview, which declared a local state of emergency earlier this week when fire threatened rural residences south of the hamlet of Little Smoky. Residents in that area were also under a two-hour evacuation alert.
Fox Creek is about 260 kilometres northwest of Edmonton and 200 kilometres southeast of Grande Prairie.