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Spring ice breakup on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers led to flooding and the complete closing of Fort McMurray's downtown core.

Andrew Thorne/Handout

Andrew Thorne spent the wee hours of Monday morning watching the waters rise around his home in Draper, a semi-rural neighbourhood southwest of Fort McMurray, Alta.

By around 6:30 a.m., the water had surged over a road and come to within a couple of metres of his home, which he built a decade ago 250 metres above sea level in the hopes of escaping spring floods.

Mr. Thorne’s property is under a mandatory evacuation order. But he and his family – his wife, who Mr. Thorne says has a compromised immune system, and the couple’s two teenaged children – stayed. They have the ability to quickly leave, by boat if necessary, and have been isolating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

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“I’m under a mandatory evacuation order, but because of the pandemic and because of my height [above sea level], I felt I was safer here,” Mr. Thorne said Monday in a telephone interview.

The floods are a blow for a community still dealing with the after effects of a devastating wildfire in 2016 and also hit hard by the oil slowdown amid the pandemic.

On Monday, the region asked for federal help.

“We have requested assistance from the federal government as we face this new crisis,” Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said in a social-media post Monday.

Spring ice breakup on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers led to flooding and the complete closing of the city’s downtown core.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the federal government was aware of the situation and was looking for ways to help.

“The fact that flooding season and, in due course, forest fire season is coinciding with coronavirus in Canada is posing some special challenges,” she said in Ottawa. “We have been gearing up for those from the outset and this is an issue we are looking at urgently today.”

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The municipality on the weekend declared a second state of local emergency on top of one declared last month because of the pandemic.

Resident Dino De Martin on Monday said the flooding is the worst he’s seen in more than 40 years in the community.

Mr. De Martin, who also lives in Draper, said he and his family have been hunkered down because of the pandemic, with he and his wife working from home and their two children, 10 and 14, doing school work online.

As of Monday, they were holed up in a Fort McMurray hotel room, having been referred there by local emergency-response teams.

Mr. De Martin, a trainer at Syncrude, says he isn’t sure if his insurance policy will cover flood-related damage to his property. Regardless of the outcome of any claim, he worries it may take time to resolve; he and his wife just recently wrapped up an insurance claim related to the 2016 wildfire, which resulted in smoke and other damage to their home.

“I feel bad for the kids – they’ve been through more now, at their age, than most adults have been through in a lifetime," Mr. De Martin said.

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Denise Martineau, who lives in the Thickwood neighbourhood of Fort McMurray, said she’d heard from two relatives with homes in Draper whose homes had been flooded.

Ms. Martineau said some people she’s spoken to are frustrated by what they feel is a lack of timely information coming from officials, including the mayor.

The municipality issued a string of evacuation orders and alerts on the weekend, including a mandatory order for the Draper community on April 26.

“The public is urged to follow mandatory evacuation orders immediately,” officials said Monday on the municipality’s Facebook page. “Overnight, we have rescued more than 100 people who did not adhere to these orders.”

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More evacuation orders were issued later Monday.

In British Columbia, the River Forecast Centre has issued several flood warnings and advisories, including for rivers and streams southwest of Prince George and around Williams Lake.

Williams Lake on April 24 declared a seven-day state of local emergency because of flooding and issued several evacuation orders and alerts, including one for a mobile home park with 86 homes. The homes are not under imminent threat, but residents should prepare to leave at a moment’s notice, the city said in a release.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, said during her daily briefing that officials were prepared for potential evacuations related to floods or fires.

In a statement after flying over the area, Premier Jason Kenney said the floods were expected to result in “significant and lasting” property damage.

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Responding to suggestions that the military could use explosives to clear the ice jam that has resulted in the floods, Mr. Kenney said expert advice indicates that strategy could be counterproductive, adding the ice pack is an estimated 25 kilometres long.

“It wouldn’t displace it, it would probably jam it up even further,” he said, adding that while governments were prepared to take steps to protect the community, “that does not appear to be a viable option.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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