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Striations in the ice jam caused by the piers of three bridges that cross the Athabasca River in Fort McMurray, Alta., on April 28, 2020.

Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press

Len Hansen’s girlfriend is safe at a house on higher ground. He has two boats in his yard ready to go. He has his quad. He’s carefully watching nearby flood water levels, and his property is still dry.

His downtown Fort McMurray, Alta., neighbourhood is under a mandatory evacuation order, but Mr. Hansen, 59, remains in his house. Even with flood water covering cars and trucks, and turning nearby streets into canals, Mr. Hansen doesn’t want to leave out of fears of looting and coronavirus.

Moving into an oil sands camp, a hotel room or going anywhere near large groups is a no-go due to COVID-19.

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“I don’t mind my little circle of people. I know everybody is safe,” Mr. Hansen said of what he describes as a small group in the Lower Townsite that has decided to remain despite the evacuation order, and has created “a chain” of people who look out for property and one another.

Len Hansen, a Fort McMurray resident who refuses to evacuate.

Len Hansen /Courtesy of Len Hansen

On Wednesday, there was some good news on the flood front. Provincial officials said within the next two to three days, they expect flood waters to begin dropping as a 25-kilometre ice jam that raised levels on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers as much as six metres at Fort McMurray melts. Re-entry for residents that had to evacuate could begin in as little as 10 days, according to provincial officials.

“Things are looking up," Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said.

On Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney also announced northern Albertans who evacuated because of the spring floods will receive $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent child, as an emergency support payment.

But officials are still grappling with a flooding disaster within a health emergency. The mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, has called it a 100-year flood. More than 13,000 people – mostly from Fort McMurray, but also other northern Alberta communities including Fort Vermilion and the Tallcree First Nation – have had to leave their homes.

Government officials are adjusting to the twin crises. Shane Schreiber, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said personal protective equipment supplies have been shipped to Fort McMurray and communities on the Peace River affected by flooding. That equipment, he said, is important “so people can be safe, not just while they’re evacuated, but also as we start to allow re-entry and to clean up.”

Fort McMurray was hit by a massive wildfire dubbed “The Beast” four years ago, with that earlier disaster forcing more than 80,000 people to evacuate. Some residents have just had their homes recently rebuilt, only to see them flooded by river waters this week.

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In the age of coronavirus, Mr. Schreiber said people who are registering as evacuees undergo a check for symptoms before being assigned accommodation. He said Wednesday no COVID-19 cases had been identified in the screening process.

“We use individual accommodation like hotel rooms. Or in the camp setting, people have individual rooms, as opposed to dorm-style rooms," Mr. Schreiber said. He said finding space for evacuees would have been more difficult during the oil region’s boom times, when there was little in the way of spare housing capacity.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw has granted a waiver for volunteers working to sandbag in some areas affected by flooding, because they have to be closer together than the province’s physical-distancing rules allow, he added.

Former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, whose home was incinerated in the 2016 fire, and has now had his new Fort McMurray home under construction destroyed by the flood, said the pandemic has changed the way people commiserate with one another.

“Nobody is shaking hands,” Mr. Jean said, noting many residents of Fort McMurray have oil sands operations’ safety planning drilled into their heads, and many had emergency “ready bags” with masks prepared to go, even before the pandemic hit.

The evacuation order for downtown Fort McMurray remains in place. Mr. Schreiber praised the “calm and mannered way” in which thousands have evacuated their homes. Officials say anyone remaining in evacuated areas is putting themselves and first responders at risk.

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But Mr. Hansen said he’s a Métis hunter and trapper who has been boating on the Athabasca River since childhood. Ice jams and flooding are a yearly springtime concern in Fort McMurray, and Mr. Hansen acknowledges he’s never seen high waters like these.

Still, Mr. Hansen said he’s going to stay put. “I have the means to get out of here safely," he said. "This is my element. Don’t worry about me.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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