Traffic-clogged highway during Fort McMurray wildfire spurs call for 2nd highway

Wood Buffalo municipal council to ask the province to help fund a $1.5 billion highway inside and outside Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities.

‘It’s a miracle we all survived and it’s a miracle we are still here'

Smoke fills the air as cars line Highway 63 in the escape from Fort McMurray during the wildfire. (CAOS91.1(KAOS)/Canadian Press)

Wood Buffalo is looking to Ottawa, the province and industry for help in building a second highway into and out of Fort McMurray.

During the evacuation in May, tens of thousands of people jammed Highway 63, the sole road in and out of the northern Alberta city, as walls of flame showered embers and ash onto the roadway.

Vehicles ran out of fuel and were abandoned after sitting in the massive traffic jam for hours.

"It's a miracle we all survived and it's a miracle we are still here," Coun. Keith McGrath said.
Abandoned vehicles litter Highway 63, south of Fort McMurray, Alta., as residents fled the wildfire engulfing the city on Tuesday, May 2, 2016. (Brian Langton/Handout/Canadian Press)

While most residents escaped south, about 25,000 people headed north, where they could be flown out or wait until the wildfire subsided.

"We had 88,000-plus near misses. So we have to find out a way to do this better from a safety point of view," Coun. Sheldon Germain said.

The municipality's wildfire recovery committee recommended supporting the $1.5-billion project along with a number of other strategies to make Fort McMurray less vulnerable to disasters.

Highway hopes

The municipality says it will put up $5-million towards the $15-million cost of the pre-design of the proposed East Clearwater Highway, which includes geotechnical work, development of traffic models and consultations, if the province and federal government funds the rest.

The municipality said it would also seek help from industry to fund the project.

The proposed route of the East Clearwater Highway. (Wood Buffalo Municipality)

"Making sure we involve industry to champion this project, at the same time making sure industry is identified with some sort of royalty breaks," McGrath said.

Resident Melissa Gallant urged council to move ahead on the alternate highway.

She described to councillors how she was stuck in traffic for 15 hours with her mother and children on Highway 63 during the evacuation as flames whipped alongside them.

"I live in Canada and I am a Canadian," she said. "I should feel safe in the community that I live in and I don't."