First wave of Fort McMurray evacuees set to return home Wednesday
Emma Jarratt and Dario Balca, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, May 31, 2016 2:55PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, May 31, 2016 9:41PM EDT
Fort McMurray evacuees are poised to receive another $40 million from the Red Cross as thousands of residents prepare to go home Wednesday.
Jenn McManus, the vice-president of the Red Cross in Alberta, said $15 million has been allotted to transportation for evacuees to get back to Fort McMurray. The other $25 million will go towards supports and services in the community after re-entry.
The Red Cross has raised $112 million for Fort McMurray. That amount has been matched by both the provincial and federal governments for a total of $336 million.
“The generosity of Canadians has been truly outstanding,” McManus said.
Even though some residents will be returning home Wednesday, officials warned 2,000 people on Monday that their homes were not fit for re-entry due to toxic ash.
“It became very clear it’s not safe to live in these neighbourhoods with the debris in place,” said Alberta’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Karen Grimsrud. “Specifically the ash has a very high pH, which makes it caustic and may cause both skin and respiratory irritation and burns. There are also heavy metals like arsenic in the samples.”
Officials say it could take three months to clear the debris and some residents are now concerned the re-entry plan is being rushed, given the new health concerns.
CTV’s Melanie Nagy says she has spoken with many evacuees – including one mother with children who have respiratory issues -- who are expressing concerns about the possibility of contaminants.
“I’ve spoken with more people not going home, than are,” Nagy reported from near Fort McMurray.
Residents’ concerns about a rushed process were not shared by top officials who say the first phase of the re-entry, beginning June 1, is still on track, despite the health concern setback.
“We’re making the best decisions that we can based on the advice and the recommendations of officials who are the experts in safety as well as balancing the different safety challenges with re-entry,” Premier Rachel Notley told reporters on Tuesday, adding that so far, the province “has struck the right balance” based on the information available.
Notley said those who don’t feel comfortable with returning to the city don’t have to do so.
The voluntary program is scheduled to take place as follows:
- Zone 1: Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Gregoire Lake Estates (June 1)
- Zone 2: Parsons Creek, Stone Creek, Timberlea, Eagle Ridge, Dickinsfield (June 2)
- Zone 3: Thickwood, Wood Buffalo (June 3)
- Zone 4(a): Gregoire, Prairie Creek, Saprae Creek Estates (June 3)
- Zone 4(b): Grayling Terrace, Draper (June 4)
About 15,000 Fort McMurray residents are expected to return to the fire-damaged city starting at 8 a.m. local time on Wednesday.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Notley commended emergency workers for their swift response to the crisis and recovery.
“Almost two weeks ago, we established five conditions for the safe return of residents to Fort McMurray,” she said. “I am pleased to report today that these conditions have been met, and voluntary phased re-entry will begin June 1 as planned, with the exception of the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways.”
The five conditions were:
- The wildfire is no longer a threat
- Critical infrastructure has been repaired
- Basic essential services have been restored
- Hazardous areas have been secured
- Local government has been re-established
Health conditions in the area will continue to be monitored daily. Currently a boil water advisory is in effect and seniors and families with children under seven are cautioned to think carefully before returning.
Police say their focus will shift to traffic control as residents move back towards the city and they will be making sure people get to where they need to be safely.
Residents can expect 'shocking' changes
Notley said the re-entry process will be difficult for returning evacuees as they witness the extent of the damage caused by the wildfire, but urged residents to stay strong.
“It’s very possible for many people, the re-entry process will be the next most stressful since (evacuation) because they’ll see how the community has changed...I think it will be shocking,” she said.
“The people of Fort McMurray have been profoundly patient, determined, resilient and graceful under tremendous pressure,” she said, adding that residents need to “remain focused on the overriding goal of supporting each other” in the recovery process.
Alberta Health Services will be providing mental health support in the community as residents come to terms with the devastation caused by the fire, according director of emergency management, Bob Couture.
“It’s going to be an emotional event when we have those first cars pulling back into the community,” he said. “It’s going to be hopefully a joyous event.”
Essential services such as grocery stores, banks and gas stations will be open, although many may not be working at full capacity, Couture said.
Residents can also expect an increased police presence in the city during the re-entry process.
“We are here to assist them to make sure you arrive in a safe and efficient homecoming,” Wood Buffalo RCMP Superintendent Rob McCloy told reporters on Tuesday. “As areas of Fort McMurray become safe for re-entry, you can rely on to keep traffic moving and to keep everyone safe on the road.”
McCloy also encouraged returning evacuees to use the seven police information centres across the city for any concerns they might have.
If anyone suspects that any criminal activity has taken place on their property since evacuation, they are asked to contact 780-788-4040.
“The RCMP lives here, works here. We are one of you and we make up their community of Fort McMurray with you,” McCloy said. “We stand by your side with all our flexibility and patience to see everyone back in their home.”