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More evacuations, explosions in Fort McMurray underscore need for safe timing for re-entry

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By Shari Narine Sweetgrass Contributing Editor EDMONTON







May 17, 2016.

Electricity has been fully restored to the Fort McMurray First Nation but when evacuees will be returning to the community – or Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McKay - is as of yet unknown.

Not only did the growing wildfire cause further evacuations north of Fort McMurray Monday night, but two explosions occurred within Fort McMurray destroying 10 homes. The cause of the explosions in the neighbourhoods of Thickwood and Dickinsfield is under investigation.

“The government of Alberta has been discussing a re-entry plan with the Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Obviously yesterday’s events have caused us to take a second look at those plans. Safety will be and must be our first and principal priority,” said Premier Rachel Notley, speaking from the Provincial Operations Centre in Edmonton.

Scott Long, executive director of operations with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, would not speculate on whether the explosions were due to the natural gas being turned back on in the community or whether the work would proceed in a different manner. Natural gas has been restored to about 60 per cent of Fort McMurray while the entire community and Anzac have electricity.

“I think it just highlights, again, the uncertainty of the challenges with re-entry planning and re-establishing essential services,” said Long.

On Monday, the wildfire grew from 285,000 hectares to 355,000 hectares. As it moved north on the western flank of Fort McMurray, it forced the late day evacuation of 8,000 workers from approximately 19 camps, including Suncor and Syncrude. It also destroyed the 665-unit Blacksand Lodge, which had been evacuated.

In accordance to industry’s own emergency management plans, approximately 6,000 evacuated workers headed nort, to oil and gas infrastructure that was not threatened, said Long. Approximately 2,000 workers went south. Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray is presently unsafe for ground evacuation, but Long noted that industry has the capacity to evacuate its workers by air. He also said that government and industry were working closely together to ensure the safety of the workers.

Today, strong west winds and hot, dry conditions are pushing the first east toward the Suncor facility and the Northland Forest Products sawmill. Also at risk are the Noralta Lodge, with 3,700 rooms, and Birch Mountain/Poplar Creek Lodge with 360 rooms. The eastern front of the fire is expected to reach the Saskatchewan border today.

The northern portions of Fort McMurray – Timberlea, Thickwood and Parsons Creek - are also areas of concern.

“We are still optimistic that firefighters will continue to hold those northern neighbourhoods…we have everybody employed in those neighbourhoods as well as we have very good fireguards built up,” said Chad Morrison, senior manager with Alberta wildfireprevention. Airtankers and helicopters will continue to aid the fight, and already-burned ground will act as a natural fireguard.

Poor air quality has hampered re-entry work into Fort McMurray. Notley said it was hoped that retail partners could start coming back, but that has been delayed. She said ATCO staff had been evacuated as had the 400 workers, who were tasked with getting the hospital up and running.

Structural inspections, almost concluded, indicate that 89 per cent of the structures are safe to occupy, 10 per cent are destroyed and one per cent need further inspection.

“The picture that is emerging is one in which the community is mostly intact notwithstanding significant losses in some parts of the city,” said Notley.

Notley said she hoped to be able to offer a specific re-entry plan later in the week.