Fort McMurray evacuees could begin returning to their homes as soon as June 1 if the city is judged to be secure, nearly a month after more than 80,000 residents were forced to flee from advancing wildfires.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley cautioned during the announcement on Wednesday that several conditions have to be met before residents can return to the fire-ravaged city. Namely, the threat from a wildfire now covering 4,230 square kilometres will need to have subsided, the air quality improved and basic services restored.
Those conditions are:
- The wildfire must no longer be an “imminent threat” to the community.
- Critical infrastructure must be prepared to provide “basic service.”
- Essential services such as fire, police, EMS, and health care must be restored to a “basic level
- “Hazardous areas” must be secure.
- The local government must be re-established.
"If conditions change, as they did this just week, the voluntary re-entry may begin later than June 1," Ms. Notley said at a news conference in Edmonton. "Safety has been our first priority from the beginning of this situation and it will continue to be our first priority."
While the re-entry plan is subject to change, evacuees will be allowed to return in phases, staggered over 15 days to avoid the traffic chaos witnessed when residents fled. People living in the least damaged areas will be allowed in first, starting with downtown.
At the end of the re-entry, residents of the devastated neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill will be allowed to return and, in many cases, collect any belongings still intact. Burned areas will be protected by fencing being installed. The end of the re-entry schedule coincides with the local health centre returning to "full operations," Ms. Notley said.
Neighbourhoods by order of re-entry:
- Zone 1 – Lower Townsite, Anzac.
- Zone 2 (a) – Parsons Creek, Stone Creek, Timberlea north of Confederation.
- Zone 2 (b) – Eagle Ridge, Timberlea south of Confederation, Dickensfield.
- Zone 3 – Thickwood, Wood Buffalo.
- Zone 4 (a) – Gregoire, Saprae Creek Estates.
- Zone 4 (b) Waterways, Abasand, Beacon Hill.
The announcement came after two days of intense fire activity around Fort McMurray that saw the wildfires nearly double in size since Sunday. Work camps and oil sands facilities north of the city were evacuated Monday night due to the conflagration.
The city remains under an evacuation order because of the massive wildfire that burned through some of its neighbourhoods and one oil sands camp north of town. Hotspots are still popping up in Fort McMurray and crews are still working to secure infrastructure.
With the recent flare-up in fire activity, some councillors with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo questioned Wednesday whether the plan to allow residents to return in two weeks is too aggressive.
"How can we talk about re-entry when … we're still worried if our city is going to burn down?" Councillor Allan Vinni told The Globe and Mail. He said that he and other council members are worried the province is rushing the return to Fort McMurray.
"They're making a mistake," Mr. Vinni added. "People are not saying 'I need to go home now.' They just are saying, 'Let us know when.'"
Mayor Melissa Blake confirmed that some on council felt that a later re-entry date would be safer. "Everyone on council is behind the absolute necessity for safety as essential to any re-entry plan," she added.
Brian Jean choked back tears on Wednesday as he said the timeline was a great relief. The Leader of Alberta's Official Opposition Wildrose Party and the MLA for Fort McMurray, Mr. Jean vowed to begin rebuilding once it was safe.
"We will rebuild our city better than it's ever been before and I will stand beside you every step of the way," he said, speaking at the provincial emergency-operations centre in Edmonton. "I will have my tool belt on and my shovel in my hand and we will clean it up."
With the spike in wildfires, there have been setbacks in recent days as re-entry work was suspended on Monday due to the fire risk and poor air quality in Fort McMurray. A plan to bring in store owners to begin restocking grocery stores and gas stations was put on hold, workers cleaning the local hospital were evacuated from the area and crews restoring natural-gas service were stopped after a house exploded.
Air quality in the region is generally measured on a scale of one to 10, with the high end reflecting the poorest quality. The region's air quality was 51 on Wednesday at 8 a.m., five times above the standard top measurement, but dropped to 11 by the afternoon. Ms. Notley said she would like the number to fall below 10 before residents are let back in.
Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said that they will have masks to distribute to returning residents.
Mr. Vinni said most people he hears from want to make sure Fort McMurray is clean and safe before tens of thousands of residents return. A boil-water advisory will remain in effect when residents return and most medical services will be provided under a field-hospital tent.
The date the province has landed on "is absolutely the earliest day that we could ever go back, if everything works out perfectly fine," Mr. Vinni said.
Not everyone should immediately return to Fort McMurray, the Premier warned. People with breathing difficulties, those in the later stages of pregnancy or high-risk pregnancy and people who are receiving cancer treatments, dialysis or other specialized medical services should not return immediately.
Schools will not open until September and students will move to the next grade when the doors open.
For those who do return, residents should plan to be self-sufficient for days, if not weeks. People should pack food, water, clothes and flashlights, Ms. Notley said. The city will only have the most basic services up and running.
"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 that they are dealing with," Ms. Notley said. "It is important to give people some timelines, however tentative, so they can begin to make plans."
The government also introduced another financial support plan, noting not everyone has a home to return to. Eligible evacuees will be able to access funding to cover damage deposits, rent, and utility connections for up to 90 days from the date of their evacuation. The benefit can be applied to hotel costs.
For some evacuees, the June 1 re-entry still feels a long way away. "It's too long, but we've got to do what we've got to do," Darlene Christopher said at an evacuee reception centre in Lac La Biche, Alta.
Much still needs to be determined, including if her home, in a northern neighbourhood of the city, is safe to live in, she said.
"Even if you're allowed in on that date, there's no saying you can stay. The house might have smoke damage."
She pointed out her friend, who is pregnant, may also face delays, given her due date is in June.
With a report from Jeffrey Jones in Lac La Biche, Alta.