By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
May 24, 2016.
Officials are still working on a plan that will allow residents in the largely destroyed Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill to be able to return to their homes and personally retrieve keepsakes and valuables.
Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said Tuesday that she understands the importance of that step. Following the Slave Lake fire in 2011, residents, whose homes were destroyed, were unable to return. They had to depend on first responders to wade through wreckage and rescue what was salvageable.
“Right now … we are doing a lot of assessment of the risk associated with the most damaged areas in terms of if it poses any hazard or risk not only to the people investigating their own property, but also if it could potentially pose a risk to a broader area than that,” said Larivee.
The province announced a phased-in return-to-Fort-McMurray last week although it is contingent on air quality and proximity of the wildfire. Residents could start making their way home June 1 and those to arrive first would be those who live in areas least impacted by the wild fire, which forced a mass evacuation May 3. According to the re-entry plan, residents in the neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace, and Draper, the hardest hit neighbourhoods, are scheduled to return on the final day of re-entry, June 4.
The most damaged neighbourhoods were homes to many of Fort McMurray’s Indigenous population. Last week, Larivee announced that local accommodations will be arranged for those who have lost their homes. Primary accommodation will be drawn from the vacancies that existed prior to the fire.
Scott Long, executive director with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, says in the multiple telephone town halls, which have attracted over 10,000 participants each night, residents have made it clear they want to visit their damaged homes.
“We want to make sure that is as safe as possible. And how that looks and what that plan is looking like, we’re working closely with the municipality, details to follow based on additional environmental testing,” said Long.
That environmental testing is underway right now.
Long said that at the end of this week a “rehearsal for re-entry” will be carried out by officials, led by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo with support from the province, industry partners, business stakeholders, and anybody else deemed necessary.
“Essentially what we are going to do is we’re going to go step by step … in what we expect and hope to happen. We will question some of those assumptions, and if we find that there’s a gap, something we haven’t thought of, we will build it into the plan,” said Long.
Chad Morrison, senior manager with Alberta wildfire prevention, says the fire, which is still classified as out-of-control, has claimed 522,892 hectares, 2,500 hectares in Saskatchewan, and is burning away from the community and the oil sand facilities. He says more firefighters will be coming from other parts of the province and Canada, United States and South Africa and will add to the already 1,200 firefighters at the scene.