Residents of Fort McMurray are preparing to return to the town after fleeing from advancing wildfires nearly a month ago. As Jana G. Pruden reports, evacuees will be allowed to return in phases over a 15-day period
Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail
Amonth after a fire entered Fort McMurray and sent 80,000 people fleeing in a panicked evacuation, it's expected that the five criteria for re-entry set by provincial and emergency officials will be met, and residents will begin moving back next week. This is where the criteria stand at present:
The wildfire must no longer be an imminent threat to the community
The wildfire around Fort McMurray is close to 600,000 hectares in size and still considered out of control, but the threat has changed significantly. Provincial wildfire manager Chad Morrison said rain and weather conditions have helped firefighters make significant progress with the blaze, including bulldozing 250 kilometres of fire break and adding more firefighters when it was safe to do so. The fire is currently burning away from populated areas and oil-sands operations, and swaths of land that previously burned now serve as some protection against a returning blaze. Mr. Morrison says the long-term threat from the wildfire has "greatly diminished," and is expected to continue to decrease. More rain is expected in the area this weekend.
Critical infrastructure must be prepared to provide basic service
In the days since the fire, specialized crews have been working to repair service inside the city, including restoring water and sewer, electricity, natural gas, and landfill operation. Gas station, grocery store and pharmacy owners and staff began returning to the community on Thursday to prepare their businesses for the public re-entry starting June 1.
Essential services such as fire, police, EMS, and health care must be restored to a basic level
Both RCMP detachments in Fort McMurray have been fully re-opened, and regular detachment officers have returned after being relieved by other officers. (Neither of the city's RCMP detachments were damaged, but the Timberlea building had to be closed because of poor air quality after the fire.) In addition to the detachment members, there are an additional 79 RCMP officers from around the province currently working in Fort McMurrray.
The Fort McMurray Fire Department is operational, and medical service is available in the city. A temporary medical facility has been operating in outdoor tents, and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is expected to be fully re-opened by June 15.
Hazardous areas must be secure
Thirty-two kilometres of fencing (about 100 truckloads) is being installed around areas that were damaged by fire.
Local government must be re-established
Fort McMurray mayor Melissa Blake said on Wednesday that she believes this condition has been met, even while council has continued to meet in Edmonton. "We are meeting, we are facilitating decision-making that's required, and I think that we are functioning, although it's not in our home chambers," she said.
Repopulating a city of 80,000 people is a complex undertaking, especially when the city is accessed by only one highway. The Fort McMurray re-entry is slated to begin June 1, and will be staggered in controlled phases over the course of 15 days as the city is opened to residents according to zones.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, said a time to begin the entry has not yet been set, and details will be released over the next few days explaining exactly how it will work.
"As you can understand, there's some complexities with that," he said. "We don't want people sitting on the highway at one o'clock in the morning, or sitting on the highway in anticipation of that time."
Mr. Couture said officials won't be checking the identification of returning residents to ensure they are staying within their zone, but that he is hoping people will choose to abide by the plan. He said the evacuation was done in a safe and orderly way, and he hopes the re-entry process will be the same.
"We trust and we hope that people will abide by that, just out of respect as we try to load into the community and not all at once," he said.
A number of rehearsals are currently being held to test the re-entry plan.
Downtown and areas that were least damaged by fire will be the first zones to return, the most heavily damaged areas of the city will be the last.
- 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 Fort McMurray airport is expected to be open to commercial traffic on June 10, and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is expected to be fully opened by June 15.
Schools will start again in September, with students moving on to the next grade.
Although all residents of Fort McMurray are being allowed to return to the community, officials have warned that some may want to wait, including people with breathing problems or other health issues, seniors, young children and pregnant women. A boil-water advisory remains in effect, and air quality continues to fluctuate and is being monitored.
A Public Notice of Risk posted on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo website on Friday says the area remains under a state of emergency, and warns essential services may be limited or unavailable. A section entitled "inherent dangers and assumed risks" notes hazards from the wildfire include poor air quality, caustic ash, contaminated food and water, dangerous debris, mould, fungus, and the lack or limited availability of essential services. The notice warns that those who enter the area are responsible for assessing and considering the risks.
Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, said people who decide to return during the re-entry should take 14 days of groceries and medication with them, be aware of the boil-water advisory, and consider bringing respirators if they are concerned about, or sensitive to, air quality.
"We're asking people to be prepared when they come in…," Mr. Couture said in a press conference on Thursday. "Bring 14 days of groceries. Bring your medications. Be self-sufficient. Be self-sufficient in regard to the air-quality index."
Mayor Melissa Blake said in a Wednesday press conference that she and her family plan to return to Fort McMurray only to see the condition of their home and gather a few essentials, but will then stay in Edmonton for the rest of the school year and travel back and forth when necessary. She said her family doesn't want to return until the city's drinking water is back to its previous standard, and that she expects "people will make similar decisions based on their own needs and urgency."
Outside the broader damage to the community, residents will face a range of individual circumstances when they return. There were 2,400 structures destroyed in the fire, and others have been damaged by smoke, soot, water or ash. Mr. Couture says the state of those still standing ranges from homes that were without power for weeks and where "rotting food is an issue" to houses that are basically the way they were left, except for a slight smell of smoke.
"It can go from one extreme to the other extreme," he said.
Residents whose homes were destroyed will be able to visit the site, and take possessions that can be salvaged from the scene before a clean-up is done. Plans are also being made for those who need housing, and money is available through the Wildfire Evacuee Transitional Accommodation for residents without adequate insurance or no insurance at all.
Seven community information centres will be open around the area to help during the re-entry; among other services, they will offer mental-health support for people struggling with the effects of the disaster.
In a video posted on the municipality's Twitter feed on Thursday evening, Mr. Couture warned residents they may see "some disturbing things" on the drive back to the community, including smoke.
"Do not be alarmed by this," he said.
He suggested residents download the Alberta Emergency Alert app to stay informed about conditions as they make their way home.