More than 80,000 displaced Fort McMurray residents may be allowed to start returning to their homes on June 1, as part of a phased re-entry plan presented by the Alberta government on Wednesday.
Premier Rachel Notley outlined details at a news conference about what the province calls "a conditional timeline" for when the population of Alberta's oilsands capital can begin returning to the city that frightened evacuees fled two weeks ago.
For a few moments Wednesday, political differences were set aside, when Wildrose Opposition leader Brian Jean — who lost his own house to the flames — thanked the NDP government for its efforts on behalf of his constituents.
Jean took over the podium for a few minutes and spoke of the anguish and grief shared by the people he represents in the legislature.
"I know that every morning I've been receiving messages from my family," said Jean, who paused briefly, the words caught in his throat, "my friends, and my neighbours. They are tired, stressed, and waiting to hear this news."
The re-entry plan calls for the first residents to return on a voluntary basis on June 1, with the entire population able to return by June 15.
Five conditions must be met
To accomplish that timeline, five conditions will have to be met. Those conditions include:
- That the fire is no longer "an imminent threat" to the city (and air quality is not hazardous).
- That the hospital is open and able to provide basic health services.
- That fire and police departments are operational, and 911 and ambulance service are restored.
- That all roads are open to traffic and natural gas and electricity have been fully restored.
- That supplies of potable water and food are available, and people have access to banks and pharmacies.
If those safety benchmarks are met, people may well start rebuilding their lives and communities by June 1. But the city they return to will look much different from the one they left.
Notley listed items returning residents should bring with them, including refilled prescriptions, food and drinking water for people and pets, portable coolers (since fridges and freezers may not be usable), rubber boots, flashlights and batteries, and a camera or video camera to document property damage.
Notley also told residents that Fort McMurray schools will not reopen until September, and said all students will be automatically promoted to the next grade.
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"With respect to the re-entry timelines, I can tell you today that if the five re-entry conditions are met, we anticipate that residents, on a voluntary and phased basis, will be allowed to begin to return to Fort McMurray beginning on Wednesday, June 1, with the return completed by Wednesday, June 15, which will coincide with the hospital returning, we believe, to full operations."
Plan for four days in June
The phased re-entry plan will begin in the areas with the least damage, and will happen over four days, so traffic doesn't stall on Highway 63, the only road into the city. The plan lays out four dates:
- June 1, for residents of the lower town site, Anzac, and First Nations communities.
- June 2, for residents of north Fort McMurray, including Timberlea and Thickwood.
- June 3, for residents of south Fort McMurray, including Gregoire and Saline Creek.
- June 4, for residents of the hardest hit areas in Abasand, Beacon Hill and Saprae Creek.
"Let me be clear that this re-entry plan is voluntary. It's a matter of allowing those people who wish to return on a voluntary basis to do so in a phased and cautious way. We anticipate that many people will not return as early as June 1, and we will support them in that decision."
Notley said electricity has been restored to most undamaged parts of the city, but work to restore natural gas service has been halted pending an investigation into the cause of a house explosion in the Dickinsfield neighbourhood on Tuesday. Earlier reports of two separate explosions were incorrect, the premier said.
But the premier had some words of caution of residents anxious to get back home and back to their jobs.
"If conditions change, as they did just this week, the voluntary re-entry may begin later than June 1," she said.
Heavy smoke has already set back re-entry preparations. The air quality index (normally measured on a scale of one to 10) hit 38 on Tuesday and reached an eye-popping 51 at 8 a.m. Wednesday, but fell to 11 by mid-afternoon.
That poor air quality stalled work to reopen the hospital.
Officials expected that by June 1, the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre will be able to offer primary care, public health, support for home care, some mental health supports, lab services, X-ray and CT imaging, pharmacy and limited types of emergency surgery.
But even then, the hospital will not be equipped to offer acute in-patient care, obstetrics, dialysis, in-patient psychiatry or long-term care, Notley said. Ground and air ambulances will be available to transport urgent cases to Edmonton when needed.
When residents do return home, a boil-water advisory will be in effect until near the end of June.
The wildfire, since nicknamed "the Beast," roared into the city on May 3 and burned entire neighbourhoods, destroying more than 2,400 homes and buildings.
Since then, thousands of displaced people have been living in evacuation centres in Edmonton, Calgary and other cities, or bunking with friends or family.
Last week, the province started handing out pre-loaded debit cards — $1,250 for adults and $600 for dependants — to help evacuees pay daily expenses as they wait to return to their homes.
The wildfire that wiped out one entire neighbourhood and heavily damaged several others still blankets the region with thick smoke and has in recent days forced more evacuations from oilsands camps north of the city.
The fire has spread steadily north and east of Fort McMurray and now covers more than 423,000 hectares, an area six times the size of Edmonton.