Fort McMurray evacuation order ends as rain, firefighters slow wildfire

As of 10 a.m. today, people are free to return to Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek.

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The evacuation order for Fort McMurray is over. As of 10 a.m. today, people are free to return to Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek. The state of local emergency is also over. People in the rest of the region no longer have to prepare for a potential evacuation.

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The wildfire that caused the evacuation on May 14, MWF-017, is still burning out of control. It is 19,493 hectares, and burning 5.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill and 4.5 kilometres from the intersections of highways 63 and 881. The new size follows a more accurate scan of the perimeter, not because the wildfire has shrank.

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I’m confident that the benchmarks have been met enabling us to lift the evacuation orders,” said Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz during a Saturday morning press conference. “The incident management team is confident that the wildfire does not pose a threat to the community.”

Alberta Wildfire forecasts so much rain for the next few days that helicopters will likely be grounded today. The 224 firefighters battling the wildfires, who are based at the old airport terminal, will be driven to a staging area and than go to the wildfire on all-terrain vehicles.

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About 6,600 evacuees are scattered across Alberta, with most people going to Cold Lake, Lac La Biche and Edmonton. Some people stayed in other parts of Fort McMurray. A handful of people never left their neighbourhoods. Thousands of other people who lived outside the evacuation areas left anyways.

Ending the evacuation on Saturday means evacuees from the four neighbourhoods will not be eligible for financial relief from the Alberta government. During an evacuation that lasts at least seven days, the province gives evacuees $1,250 per adult and an additional $500 per dependent child under 18. 

Butz told people last Wednesday to assume the evacuation would last at least until next Tuesday. However, the wildfire has not grown by much since Wednesday evening. About 20mm of rain has drenched the forest surrounding the wildfire since Thursday evening.

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Trucks from the fire departments of Red Earth Creek, Hinton and Lac La Biche parked in Grayling Terrace on May 16, 2024. The fire departments sent firefighters to help deploy and maintain protective measures against a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Unlike in 2016, utilities such as power and natural gas stayed on throughout the crisis. The wildfire never reached the city and no buildings were destroyed. Butz has promised people will return to find their neighbourhoods looking just as they had when they left.

The only differences is parts of the Boreal Forest will be soaked with a bright red-orange layer of fire retardant. Butz says the fire retardant coverage is about 30 metres thick in some parts and coats about 4.5 kilometres of forest. The 168,000 litres of fire retardant used is a harmless, phosphate-based fertilizer. It feels like a thin paint until it hardens, and will wash away after a month.

Heavy equipment operators are also building and maintaining fire guards. A fire guard has been built that stretches from the Athabasca River to Highway 63. They will now focus on guards around the wildfire’s perimeter. Much of that work will be done on the fire’s north and east sides that are closest to the city.

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The wildfire itself will likely continue burning for weeks or months. Once the wildfire is contained and no longer spreading, crews will slowly chip away at its size by extinguishing hot spots. The weather right now is cool and damp, but Mayor Sandy Bowman warned people smoke from the wildfire will be visible once the hot, dry summer weather returns.

Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St-Onge says extinguishing a wildfire this size will be a long, slow process. The 2016 Horse River Wildfire, for instance, was spotted on May 1 and brought under control on July 4. It was officially extinguished 15 months later on August 2, 2017.

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