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Air quality issues could delay return home

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By Shari Narine Sweetgrass Contributing Editor EDMONTON







May 16, 2016.

Fort McKay First Nation members are “frustrated. They want to go home,” said Rose Mueller, communications officer with the First Nation.

“We don’t know what’s happening in Fort McKay. It changes daily,” she said.

The community was voluntarily evacuated on May 7 due to smoke from the Fort McMurray wildfire. Around 400 people left, with the majority settling in Edmonton, Calgary, St. Paul and Wabasca.

The plan had been to send residents back home on Thursday and bus transportation was being arranged. The Fort McKay Day Care was to re-open Tuesday and the school the following week. On Thursday, the medical nurse practitioners would be available.

But now, hot temperatures and changing wind direction has air quality in Fort McKay at a very high health risk factor and has left Fort McKay officials scrambling for longer term accommodations for their members.

“We have people who are not yet housed or situated,” said Mueller.

The Alberta Energy Regulator mobile air monitoring unit arrived in Fort McKay on Saturday. On Sunday, it read 14.

The air quality index is generally measured on a scale of one to 10 and is based on the measurements of three contaminants: smoke, ozone and nitrogen dioxide, says Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

Mid-morning Monday, Fort McMurray’s air quality hit 38 on the index.

“The air quality health index readings have reached extreme levels in Fort McMurray and surrounding communities and we’re expecting those readings to remain high for the next 24-48 hours given the current weather and wind situation,” said Grimsrud. “Alberta Health Services continues to have air quality advisories in place for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and precaution for air quality advisory for the north and central zone.”

Air quality stations are also located in Fort Chipewyan and Anzac.

A mobile air quality monitoring unit is on its way to Fort McMurray, said Grimsrud, adding air quality will be measured on an hourly basis.

Air quality will slow down the work to get Fort McMurray back to a habitable state, said Scott Long, executive director operations with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, as workers will have to limit their time outdoors.

“We got a real jump on a lot of the re-entry work that had to be done. There was a lot of progress that had been done to date,” said Long, “This issue cropped up recently…. But air quality is tested daily as well and hopefully the wind conditions and the atmospheric conditions will cooperate and it will become less of a hazard in the days to come.”

But due to the change in air quality and AHS’s recommendation, Premier Rachel Notley said the re-entry of additional response personnel has been delayed as has the retrieval of abandoned vehicles along the roadways and in camps north of the Fort McMurray.

“It is clear that this is something that could potentially delay recovery work and a return to the community,” she said.

Notley outlined the work that has already been undertaken. Electricity service has been restored to most of Fort McMurray and 50 per cent of the community has gas services.  The water treatment plant is working although the boil water order is expected to remain for some time as work continues on restoring the plant so it can produce safe drinking water.  An operating plan has been developed for the waste water treatment plant. The landfill is back in operation. Damage assessment of the airport has determined it will be ready to resume commercial operation once re-entry is approved. As of the weekend, 19,280 structures within the city has been assessed. The hospital is being brought online in four phases and Notley said the government was getting advice on whether the hospital had to be fully operational before re-entry.

Electricity has also been restored to the municipal buildings in Anzac.

The Fort McMurray wildfire has now burned close to 285,000 hectares, and the change in wind direction, now blowing southwest, will provide a challenge, said Chad Morrison, senior manager with Alberta wildfire prevention.

Hotspots in the forested area continue to be a concern, he said, as are green areas surrounding the city and green areas within the city.

Notley said she hopes to have a re-entry timeline available by the end of the week.