Road ahead in Fort McMurray is still a long one
Thursday, June 2, 2016, 8:26 AM - Welcome back to Fort McMurray. Signs, billboards and even public officials all welcomed the first wave of evacuees to return to the fire-ravaged city on Wednesday.
"This community may look and feel very different than the community you left last month. But it is still a strong community, and progress is being made each day to make it stronger," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
RE-ENTRY INFORMATION BOOKLET: An extensive information booklet for evacuees who plan to return
Notley says eight information centres are open for residents with six in Fort McMurray, one in Anzac, and one at Nistawoyou Friendship Centre. Re-entry information packages have also been delivered to 30,000 homes. Taxi services resumed on Wednesday and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre also opened its doors with a functioning ER, lab services and diagnostic imaging. Amazingly, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and gas stations are open for business.
" I would like to thank returning residents, whether they are coming home to stay or just to pick up a few items, for respecting the zoned entry plan and for travelling patiently and safely on the highway," Notley said. "And what a welcome they have when they come into town! The “arch” of fire truck cranes, flags and the fire fighters waving says "welcome home" more powerfully than any words could."
By the afternoon hours on Wednesday, officials said roughly 7,500 people had arrived in the city and close to 1,500 had registered at information centres.
"The road ahead is still a long one," Notley concluded in her statement Wednesday. "Today is not the end of this story. It is not a return to normal life. And it’s not yet a celebration. There is still a lot of work to recover and rebuild Wood Buffalo. This will be the work of years, not weeks. And it is work we will do together. Our government will be with you as Fort McMurray rebuilds. We will be with you as you face challenges along the way and there will be challenges. But we will find solutions to problems together. I encourage you to continue to support each other and work together as a community in the spirit that you have demonstrated over the last difficult weeks. Together, all of us, will make this city strong, and whole, and even better once again."
500 homes deemed uninhabitable
Approximately 2,000 people who were expected to return home to Fort McMurray June 4 will have to stay out of the area for a while longer due to the presence of toxic ash and debris.
FORT MCMURRAY COVERAGE: For all of the latest Fort McMurray coverage visit the dedicated Fort McMurray fires page
Notley made the announcement Monday, adding that more than 500 homes and about a dozen apartment complexes are not liveable.
"Safety has always been the number one priority in this situation and that remains true throughout the re-entry process," Notley says. "A number of steps have been taken to make the community safe for residents."
Notley says initial cleaning at the hospital is complete, with basic services expected to be offered by June 1. The urgent care facility is running and will stay running throughout the re-entry period until the hospital is fully operational.
"When we announced the conditional re-entry timelines, we were very clear that re-entry would only proceed if and when it was safe to do so," Notley says. "Since then, we have been working every single day to ensure the safety of residents as they return."
There has been extensive testing on ash, soil, air, and water as well as consulting with health experts about what all of those test results would mean for people.
RCMP to assist in the safe re-entry of Fort McMurray residents: https://t.co/7OXhRSNDX6— RCMP Alberta (@RCMPAlberta) May 31, 2016
"Unfortunately, I have to report today that the outcome of these tests indicates that undamaged homes in certain neighbourhoods are not immediately safe for reoccupation," Notley told reporters Monday, citing toxic ash and debris as the main deterrents. "It means that people who live in those neighbourhoods should not plan to return permanently on June 4th, as originally planned."
The homes that have been determined to be unsafe for habitation at this time include:
- 357 homes and 10 apartment complexes in Abasand.
- 27 homes and one apartment complex in Waterways, and
- 183 homes and one apartment complex in Beacon Hill.
"In total, about 9,000 people live in these neighbourhoods and they should be making places to stay elsewhere, at least in the short-term," Notley advises, adding that this may come as very difficult news for people to hear who were expecting to return to their homes this week. "I think we're looking at roughly 2,000 people might have been expecting to return - now we're suggesting they not return, because the neighbourhoods are not safe."
These residents will be granted a one-time re-visit to their property, but not without a safety official present.
SUMMER 2016: Visit the Summer Forecast Guide to the Season for the 2016 Summer Forecast, Fall Weather Preview and much more
Notley said arrangements are being made to provide evacuees with pre-loaded debit cards. They will be made available between June 1 and June 15.
Albertans who have been affected by this disaster are being urged to seek the physical and mental health supports that they need as psychological trauma is common after natural disasters like wildfires.
As of Monday afternoon, the fire was just under 580,000 hectares in size and no significant growth is expected in the coming days. Cooler, wet weather has also helped to lower the Air Quality Index to a level 1.
HELP FROM OVERSEAS
Though Fort McMurray is no longer in danger of being consumed, hundreds of firefighters continue to battle the flames of a major wildfire in Alberta's north.
And the latest group of reinforcements made for an eye-grabbing debut.
Some 281 firefighters from South Africa completed the long journey to Edmonton late Sunday night/early Monday morning, and almost immediately entranced media and well wishers with rousing song and dance.
"It gives us moral courage, it gives us teamwork," one, Khomt Alucie, told the CBC. "If we become tired in the fire we sing. It's not something you practice, it's in the soul."
Alucie told the network the firefighters -- drawn from multiple areas of South Africa -- were newly-acquainted themselves, and the singing was a way to build some morale.
Alberta Wildfire spokesman Travis Fairweather said the newcomers will be working in the Fort McMurray area on hot spot duty.
"They're going to be digging up holes in the ground where the smoke is coming up and making sure it's completely put out," he told CTV. "It's going to be some long hard days."
They will join forces with around 2,300 firefighters already working to bring the fire to heel. The flames cover more than 500,000 hectares.
Around 10 per cent of structures burned in the city, with some neighbourhoods reporting 80 per cent destruction or more. However, of the more than 80,000 people forced to evacuate the city when the fires began to threaten it, only two died, killed in a collision while leaving the region.
However, while the situation has greatly improved, wildfire officials are tempering evacuees' expectations.
"You are returning to a community that was profoundly affected by a wildfire," warns a notice on the Alberta Wildfire's website. "Services that you are used to or rely on may be limited for some time. You are advised to bring basic necessities to last for up to 14 days including food, drinking water and prescriptions."
THE WEATHER NETWORK HEADS BACK TO FORT MCMURRAY
The Weather Network's Krissy Vann and Deb Matejicka are in Fort McMurray as some evacuees start to return home.
Tune into The Weather Network on TV for exclusive interviews from business and home owners as they get their first glimpse of their property following the tragic disaster.
WATCH BELOW: A real and honest look at the Fort McMurray wildfires