Weekly update: Thousands wait to go home as wildfire fight continues

Eight years later, at least 6,600 people have once again been told to leave their homes as a wildfire again approaches Fort McMurray.

The total number of evacuees is higher since people who did not live in Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek left Fort McMurray when the first evacuation warning was issued Friday afternoon.

“This evacuation is a stark reminder that our province lives alongside the threat of wildfires and other national disasters,” said Premier Danielle Smith. “Let me assure you our government will have Albertans’ back whenever disaster strikes.”

Evacuees have been warned to prepare for the evacuation to last at least until next Tuesday. People will be allowed to return when the wildfire is no longer a risk to the community, not when it is fully extinguished.

Once the wildfire is contained and no longer spreading, crews will slowly chip away at its size by extinguishing hot spots.

This is a long 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.

“We don’t want to speculate but this is long work, and this wildfire will be a reality for weeks and months,” said Josee St-Onge, a spokesperson with Alberta Wildfire.

On Friday, 224 firefighters and 22 helicopters are assigned to battle the wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray. The size of the wildfire, which is identified as MWF-017, has been revised as 19,582 hectares in size. The new size is thanks to a more accurate survey of the area now that smoke has cleared.

Most of the 2,579 homes destroyed in the 2016 Horse River Wildfire were in Abasand and Beacon Hill. People won’t return to find an ashen moonscape of debris, but they will find trees on the edges of the neighbourhoods soaked red. A red layer of fire retardant, about 30 metres thick in some parts, coats about 4.5 kilometres of forest.

Regional Fire Chief Jody Butz says the 168,000 litres of fire retardant is a harmless, phosphate-based fertilizer. It feels like a thin paint until it hardens, and will wash away after about a month.

“When you return home, your neighborhood will look exactly the same,” said Butz.

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People cross the Athabasca River to leave Fort McMurray after the RMWB ordered the evacuation of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek on May 14, 2024. Despite pleas for people outside the designated neighbourhoods to stay home, people in other neighbourhoods started leaving. Image from AMA Road Reports

Evacuation raises questions on twinning Highway 63, alternate routes

The evacuation of four neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray forced councillors to defer their Tuesday meeting. Ironically, one topic that was supposed to be debated was if council should lobby the province to fully twin Highway 63 down to Edmonton.

Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion, predicts it will be popular with her colleagues and the public after the evacuation. But the evacuation has also called into question why progress has been slow on getting a secondary route out of Fort McMurray.

When asked about the absence of a secondary route out of Fort McMurray, Premier Danielle Smith said the province is prioritizing Highway 686. This route, which is still being designed, would connect Fort McMurray to the Peace region.

Smith said no decision has been made on fully twinning Highway 63 to Edmonton. Twinning most of Highway 63 was finished in 2016. The highway goes back to a single-lane south of Atmore, a hamlet in Athabasca County. Tuesday’s Traffic slowed once the twinned route ended.

“There hasn’t been a decision made on that, but I have no doubt that they’ll be a discussion about that,” said Smith. “We have to make sure that our economic corridors are well resourced, so no doubt there’ll be a conversation about that as well as accelerating 686.”

Most of the untwinned sections of Highway 63 pass through Athabasca and Thorhild counties. The reeve for Thorhild County said the issue has not been raised with her council. The reeve for Athabasca County, however, predicts his council would support the motion. He says Highway 63 has three times the number of accidents compared to other highways in the county.

Fort McMurray residents like Mike Jones would welcome the support. Jones said he was frustrated watching the slow traffic during the evacuation.

“The shovel should have been in the ground as soon as we got back from the evacuation in 2016,” he said. “Instead it turned into an election promise from both parties and now it’s an empty promise. Nothing has come of it.”

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Fort McMurray wild fire evacuees Brittany Hamilton and Ellias Hamilton, 4, organize their belongings outside an evacuee centre set up at the Clareview Recreation Centre in Edmonton, Wednesday May 15, 2024. Photo by David Bloom

Evacuees report slow service, few resources at Edmonton evacuation centre

There was so much goodwill for Fort McMurray evacuees in 2016 that the Red Deer evacuation centre where Brittany Hamilton volunteered had to stop accepting donations.

But more than 24 hours after another wildfire forced Hamilton’s family to leave her Abasand home, she was still trying to register with the Canadian Red Cross and get a hotel room in Edmonton.

All her three kids had been given that day were two red balls to play with, some water bottles and Rice Krispie bars. It was not until 10 p.m. when a hotel room had been found for the family.

“Experiencing this has not been smooth by any means. There’s been misdirection, a lot of false information out there. There’s not much resources and not a lot of help,” she said.

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“You wait four to six hours waiting in line, than you wait for a hotel voucher and that can take three hours. We wait all day not knowing if there’s going to be room or when we can get a room.”

Evacuees reported few problems registering for support at evacuation centres in Cold Lake and Lac La Biche.

But at the Clareview Recreation Centre in Edmonton, evacuees have reported long waits for hotels, very little to eat and not enough donated items like clothes.

The most common problem reported by evacuees in Edmonton is that the Canadian Red Cross required in-person registration while the Alberta government allows evacuees to register online.

Mayor Sandy Bowman had nothing but praise for the evacuation centres in Cold Lake and Lac La Biche, but was alarmed about the number of complaints people at the Edmonton evacuation centre had about food, lodging and service.

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“I am looking into it with the Canadian Red Cross and the Regional Emergency Coordination Centre,” he said on Thursday evening. “It’s a very stressful time and we want to make sure our residents are treated fairly and accommodated in an evacuation.”

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A plane at the Fort McMurray International Airport on March 28, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Premier wants incentives bringing routes to regional airports like Fort McMurray

Premier Danielle Smith wants the province to help expand routes at regional airports, including the Fort McMurray International Airport.

During a May 2 presentation to the Medicine Hat Chamber of Commerce, Smith said boosting passenger traffic and routes is critical for tourism and economic development, attracting new residents, and improving living quality in cities outside Edmonton and Calgary.

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“Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge are going to be centres of growth and centres of growth need to have good air service,” said Smith, according to audio of the meeting provided to Fort McMurray Today by the Medicine Hat News.

The province has given the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA) $119,200 to help develop a strategic business case to attract more passengers. This plan will look at new or additional routes out of Fort McMurray. The funding is part of Alberta’s long-term tourism strategy. Results are expected later this year.

The Fort McMurray Airport Authority’s 2023 annual report reports more than 367,000 passengers passed through the airport in 2023, an increase of more than 320,000 passengers in 2022. This is far below pre-pandemic numbers, which saw more than 595,000 passengers in 2019. Passenger traffic peaked at more than 1.3 million passengers in 2014.

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The airport generated more than $22.6 million in revenue last year but had more than $32.8 million in expenses. FMAA has more than $148 million in long-term debt.

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CNOOC’s Long Lake facility south of Fort McMurray in a 2014 company photo.

OHS investigating fire at CNOOC’s Long Lake oilsands facility

Officials are investigating a fire at the China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) Long Lake facility south of Fort McMurray.

CNOOC confirmed the fire occurred at 2:15 p.m. on May 7 at the facility and was extinguished by 2:45 p.m. No injuries were reported.

The company did not provide any further details about the incident. A spokesperson declined to comment on the extent of the damage or impacts to production and operations.

The incident is being investigated by the Alberta Energy Regulator and Occupational Health and Safety. While no deaths occurred in this fire, two people were killed when in an explosion at CNOOC’s Long Lake facility in 2016.

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In 2019, CNOOC was ordered to pay a $450,000 fine after pleading guilty to failing to ensure the health and safety of the victims. The company had originally pled not guilty.

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Security footage of an armed robbery at the Ace Liquor on Signal Road on May 12, 2024. Image supplied by Wood Buffalo RCMP

Police investigating Thickwood liquor store robbery: Police hope to identify a man who robbed the Ace Liquor in Thickwood last weekend. A similar armed robbery at the same Signal Road store was reported on May 4.

Wood Buffalo RCMP say they responded to the robbery at 3:20 p.m. on May 12.

Police were told a man entered the store wearing a mask over his face entered the store. He threatened an employee with an edged weapon and demanded money and liquor.

The man ran away and left in a white SUV. The vehicle was last seen driving east on Tundra Road towards Eymundson Road.

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Police arrest a protester at the University of Calgary on May 9. The protesters had set up an encampment earlier that morning and called for the university to end any Israeli-linked investments. Photo by Jim Wells/Postmedia
  • Protests shut down: Calgary police used teargas, flashbangs and riot gear to clear a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of Calgary. Edmonton police used similar tactics to break up an encampment at the University of Alberta. Like other encampments, the protesters demanded their universities end any Israeli-linked investments. The leaders of both universities have defended ending the protests. Premier Danielle Smith praised Calgary police actions, but said Alberta’s police watchdog would investigate the arrests “to make sure there wasn’t any unreasonable use of force.” In Edmonton, about 100 people protested a council meeting on Tuesday. Councillors are considering changing security and safety procedures at their meetings.
  • NDP Race: Alberta NDP leadership candidate Gil McGowan is bowing out of the race to replace Rachel Notley. Vying for the job are MLAs Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse and Sarah Hoffman, Kathleen Ganley and former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Results of the leadership race are to be announced June 22.
  • Grim diagnosis from AMA: Rolling surgical outages and service cutbacks at major hospitals are symptoms of a growing “aneurysm” of acute care crisis in Alberta’s health care system, says the Alberta Medical Association (AMA). Rotating diversions has been occurring in Calgary weekly for the last six months, and it’s escalating. AMA says all members of the allied health care support teams are affected by strains on the systems — clinical associates, surgical assistants, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and more.
  • Read up on the politics and culture of Alberta  with Postmedia’s subscriber-exclusive newsletter, What’s up with Alberta? Curated by the National Post’s Tyler Dawson every Tuesday and Thursday.

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