EDMONTON – The Alberta government says people from the fire-ravaged city of Fort McMurray could start going home starting June 1 if conditions are safe, but warned there will only be basic services and a partially open hospital.
“Remember, many hazards remain in Fort McMurray,” Premier Rachel Notley said Wednesday.
“We need to address all of them before it is safe for residents to begin to return.”
Notley said the re-entry will be done in stages over two weeks. The city will not be suitable for everyone, including people with breathing problems, late-term pregnant women and those undergoing cancer treatment.
“We anticipate that many people will not return as early as June 1,” she said.
Five safety conditions must be met, including that wildfire is no longer an imminent threat and the air is safe to breathe. Basic emergency, medical and other services such as electricity and natural gas must also be available.
Notley warned that a boil-water advisory is likely to remain in place until the end of June and that people returning should bring with them what they need, including medications and groceries.
The hospital is scheduled to be fully operational by June 15.
In the meantime, the province announced a new, interactive online map application that provides detailed new images of fire-damaged areas. It includes high-resolution images from multiple angles to give residents a clearer idea of which homes have been lost and damaged.
However, Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larviee warned evacuees to approach viewing the images with caution.
“I’ve seen the devastating effects a fire has on a community and I know how difficult it can be to view those images,” she said. “I urge affected residents to seek out the emotional and mental-health supports they need.”
She said the imagery may provide enough detail to assist property owners with insurance claims, eligibility funding and other recovery actions.
More than 80,000 people fled the city on May 3 due to the wildfire that continues to burn in northeastern Alberta. The fire destroyed more than 2,400 buildings, but firefighters managed to save almost 90 per cent of the city.
The wildfire continued to burn out of control Wednesday and had grown in size to more than 4,200 square kilometres.
The flames spread toward Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray — the major road in the area — but did not cross it. Notley said she was not aware of any further damage to oilsands industry work camps.
One facility was destroyed Tuesday after 8,000 workers were evacuated from several camps in the area.
Erin Peach works at a Shell facility that has continued operations throughout the fire, and has been flying in and out of the region to work her shifts, staying with her fiance at a hotel south of Edmonton when she’s off.
She was relieved to hear she might soon be able to settle back into more of a routine, saying they’ve already found a place to rent in Fort McMurray.
“I just want to get back to normal,” said Peach. “If I’ve got to boil my water and sleep in my car, I don’t care. I just want to get back to Fort McMurray.”
Manny Eshete, who works for a company that tests soil and concrete, was unsure about rushing back. He said his downtown apartment was untouched by the fire but he wants to be more comfortable in the community — not boiling water — when he returns.
Opposition Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who represents Fort McMurray in the legislature and lost his home in the fire, said residents have been anxiously waiting for information on when they can go home so that they can feel like their lives are moving forward.
Pausing to choke back tears, Jean said his once beautiful city will flower again.
“We will rebuild our city and it will be better than ever,” Jean said. “I will have my tool belt on and my shovel in my hand and we will clean it up and rebuild it.”
Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo which encompasses the city of Fort McMurray, praised the Alberta government for the plan.
She warned residents that it won’t be the same community they left and suggested people wait a little longer before going home if they require more services.
Blake also asked residents to keep in mind that the city will bounce back over time.
“I beg you not to put yourself in any kind of risk or peril, to think about again what you’re returning to is not being what you’ve seen before,” she said.
“Envisage and imagine with me what we will be one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, because that’s the journey that council will be on now.”
Wildfire officials were hopeful about a weather forecast that said some rain could fall in the parched area Thursday and Friday.
“We are all crossing our fingers that that happens,” Notley said.