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Notley, Blake to tour Fort McMurray Monday

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By Shari Narine Sweetgrass Contributing Editor EDMONTON







May 9, 2016

If conditions allow, Premier Rachel Notley will be getting an on-the-ground tour of Fort McMurray today.

In making the announcement Sunday, Notley said it was important that she see the condition the community is in as she is leading the Wood Buffalo Ministerial Recovery Task Force, which was established by Cabinet on Friday.

“It’s important for me to go up there … because there are going to be a number of multi-ministry efforts that have to be put into play … in terms of securing and assessing the infrastructure and in order to determine what needs to be done in order to bring that infrastructure up to a level that allows people to use it safely. And so, as the person who’s ultimately overseeing all of this, it’s important that I have chance to see it first-hand,” she said.

Notley will be accompanied by Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake and Fire Chief Darby Allen.

The boots-on-the-ground tour is made possible by cooling weather, shifting winds and hard work of firefighters, said Chad Morrison, senior manager with Alberta wildfire prevention. On Friday, predictions were for the fire to double in size from the already 101,000 hectares. However, on Sunday, the fire was at 161,000 hectares, with its gains happening in the forested area.

“We’re obviously very happy that we’ve held the fire better than expected….We hope to see continued success over the next few days and have good news in terms of how we continue to make progress with the cooler weather. For us this is great fire-fighting weather. We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it.  But for wild fire stuff out in the forested area, that’s going to take us a long time to clean up,” said Morrison.

He added that the cause of the fire had not yet been determined, and expects that will take a few more weeks.  However, he said, the weather conditions caused by the original fire resulted in four more fires due to lightning strikes.

Despite the favourable firefighting conditions, more evacuations, all precautionary due to heavy smoke, took place Saturday. About 300 people from Fort McKay were evacuated to the Edmonton area along with groups of workers from Syncrude, Suncor, Husky, IOL Esso, Shell and CNRL. While Syncrude shut down, some of the other facilities are still operational.

First responders had to be evacuated from Noralta Lodge on Saturday but were able to re-establish a base in Fort McMurray. First responders have been joined by second responders, which include representatives from ATCO gas and electricity, who are assessing and restoring the services; CN Rail for logistical support to take the pressure off of air support; oil and gas industry representatives; and TELUS representatives.

Air quality will be monitored to ensure safety of those working in Fort McMurray.

Scott Long, executive director operations with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said the province is taking direction from lessons learned in the Slave Lake fire in 2011 and the southern Alberta flood of 2013.

“Key lessons … all go toward planning early with regard to re-entry and recovery. The response phase of these sorts of disasters, catastrophes, while very difficult, are relatively straightforward,” said Long. “The  hard work is with regard to re-entry planning … getting experts on the ground, engineers, damage assessment teams, having a look at all the critical infrastructure, getting people back to their homes as quickly as possible.”

Long said critical infrastructure includes power stations, schools, hospitals, and the water treatment plant, which will all determine the timeline for re-entry. Much of that critical infrastructure is still standing in Fort McMurray.

Long said firefighters are still busy tracking and putting out hotspots in Fort McMurray, which are due to flare-ups and wind conditions.

Notley said while the province has begun to move into the second phase of securing and assessing the community, there is no timeline as of yet as to when residents will be able to return home.

Notley said it is too early to determine whether this is the most expensive disaster in Alberta.

“It’s really too early to speculate on the extent and the nature of the damage….the focus has been on protecting and not counting and so we really can’t speculate on damages until we’ve sent the experts in … to determine what needs to be done,” she said