Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is planning to visit Fort McMurray on Monday to get a sense of conditions she says will help shape plans to allow tens of thousands of residents to return to the northern city they fled because of a massive forest fire.
Ms. Notley's plans, announced at a briefing Sunday in Edmonton, reflect optimism among fire officials, who say crews made progress over the weekend against the wildfire, which did not grow by as much as they had feared. While they said the fire, covering 1,600 square kilometres – an area about the size of Houston – will burn for months, they suggested they are gaining control of it in the vicinity of the embattled community, which was evacuated last week.
The Premier said the fire, as of Sunday, is "quite a bit smaller than we had feared" it would become, thanks to cooler weather as well as firefighting efforts. Winds were blowing the fire to the east, away from the city, and it is now 30 to 40 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.
Still, the fire is causing concerns as it creeps towards the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Duane McKay, Saskatchewan's commissioner of emergency management, said there was "no imminent threat" with the fire about 20 kilometres from the border – and 80 kilometres from any communities – but added that the situation is "very dynamic."
In another milestone related to the Alberta wildfire, Ms. Notley said that the evacuation of 25,000 people who fled to areas north of Fort McMurray had been successfully completed, with those people sent to safety south of the city by air and highway.
While various government ministries will have a hand in figuring out how to co-ordinate the safe return of more than 80,000 evacuated residents, Ms. Notley noted that she, as Premier, is in charge of that process. She did not set any timeline for allowing residents to return home.
"It's important that I have a chance to see [the city] first hand. And, of course, I am doing this on the advice of officials within their recommendations, assuring that it is in line with what they're working on, and in no way interferes with their primary objective of preserving safety and focusing on infrastructure protection and stabilization."
Chad Morrison, a senior official with Alberta Wildfire, sounded optimistic. "Obviously, we're very happy that we have held the fire better than expected," Mr. Morrison told the briefing Ms. Notley attended. "We hope to see continued success over the next few days and have good news in terms of how we continue to make progress."
He said cooler weather is giving firefighters an edge. "I feel very buoyed and happy that we're making great progress, especially in the community."
The Premier, who said some media will also be given access to the city on Monday, warned of what the visit may reveal. "There will be some dramatic images coming from media over the next couple of days," she said, adding mental-health resources are available for anyone who needs them.
She acknowledged the deaths of two young people, killed in a traffic accident during the evacuation. Emily Ryan, the 15-year-old daughter of a Fort McMurray-area deputy fire chief, and her stepbrother's nephew, Aaron Hodgson, died when an SUV they were in collided with a tractor trailer on the highway.
There have been reports that 1,600 structures in Fort McMurray have been destroyed by the fire. On Sunday, officials said they have been too busy fighting the fire to do a further count.
Scott Long, executive provincial operations director for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said a team will be in Fort McMurray on Monday to work on a plan to allow evacuated residents to go home. However, he was emphatic in saying there is no projection at this point of when people will be allowed to return.
He said firefighters have been focused on saving and maintaining critical infrastructure, such as the power grid, schools, the hospital and water-treatment plant – an effort he deemed key to allowing residents to come home.
The federal government had not responded Sunday to an offer from Russia to send water bombers and fire-fighting specialists to battle the fire. The offer was made last week by Vladimir Puchkov, the Russian emergency measures minister. Kirill Kalinin, a spokesman for Russia's embassy in Ottawa, said Sunday they continue to stand "ready to help our Canadian partners to fight the ongoing wildfires in Alberta."
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said on Sunday that the recovery is not going to be quick or easy. "This is a long-term endeavour and the Government of Canada will be there every step of the way," Mr. Goodale said, speaking at the Northlands Evacuee Centre in Edmonton.
He pointed to the provincial-federal agreement, which requires Ottawa to shoulder the bulk of the costs as the financial toll rises. "Given the magnitude of this disaster, there may be some other special measures we need to put in place," he said, without providing specifics.
Despite encouraging news about the state of the fire on Sunday, Mr. Goodale urged caution: "It is too early to celebrate. There is still a tremendous amount that needs to be done." And he pointed to weather conditions that were also sparking fires in other part of the country, even as the one outside Fort McMurray is being brought under control. "We may be at the beginning of a very long, hot summer," he said.
With reports from reporter Caroline Alphonso in Toronto and The Canadian Press.
Fort McMurray fire by the numbers
- 1,610 square kilometres burning as of Sunday
- 36 separate fires burning
- 3 fires out of control
- 500 firefighters on site
- 1,500 firefighters in the province
- 80,000 evacuees
- 36,000 people registered for Red Cross help
- $54-million total donations to the Red Cross as of Sunday
- $1,250 emergency provincial assistance for each adult evacuee, plus $500 a dependent
- 1,600 Fort McMurray structures reportedly destroyed by fire
Sources: Government of Alberta, Red Cross