EDMONTON – Some Fort McMurray residents who were forced to flee their homes Tuesday began arriving in Edmonton early Wednesday morning.
An evacuation centre was set up at Northlands Expo Centre in central Edmonton.
“We stripped down as many of the halls as we possibly could. We cleaned them and prepared them for cots and supplies to be brought in,” Northlands CEO Tim Reid said.
“We’re very fortunate that the Edmonton Expo Centre has just under 600,000 square feet of space, so we can receive a lot of people and we’re prepping for that today.”
Rob Smyth, the acting general manager of citizen services with the city, said Edmonton continues to provide support to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
The reception centre at Northlands is fully staffed. Volunteers are not needed and donations are not needed at the Expo Centre.
Two halls are open in the Expo Centre: the reception centre in Hall D has 400 cots and Hall A has 1,000 cots and, to date, 450 people have been assigned cots. Smyth said many people are checking in and then going to other places to stay, like with friends or at hotels. Pets are welcome at Northlands.
“We haven’t nailed down a detailed plan yet, but recreation facilities such as Commonwealth Rec Centre or Clareview are two facilities that we’re looking at,” Smyth said. “Good shower facilities, a fair bit of space so we’re beginning to get those plans in motion if required.”
A high percentage of people coming in are families with children, he said.
So far, the process is running smoothly.
“It is going very well,” Smyth said. “We’re making the best out of a bad situation but I think the evacuees are appreciative of the services and support that they’re getting.
“Obviously, it goes without saying – it’s a high, high stress time.”
Watch below: Edmontonians lending a hand to Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees
Some people are worried about family members stuck on the road trying to head south.
Edmonton Transit has suspended fares between the airport and Century Park until further notice.
Edmonton Fire Rescue is also offering support.
“We’ve received a request from Fort McMurray that they desire us to have enough firefighters on scene up there to staff up a day and a night shift and provide municipal structure fire support,” Edmonton Fire Chief Ken Block said.
Edmonton fire crews are on the ground in Fort McMurray, after arriving at around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. Block said they were sending 36 firefighters up for the shift change. They will leave Edmonton before noon Thursday and relieve crews during the supper hour. Then, those crews will come back to Edmonton.
“Beyond that, the rotation continuing on would likely occur every three days or so,” the fire chief explained. “Keep in mind that basically the entire shift there will be spent in suppressing structural fires.”
“It’s been very taxing on the crews for sure.”
Northlands said it was ready to accommodate up to 1,300 people, but could be ready to help 5,000 people relatively quickly. Cots, blankets, food, and water were brought in. The Red Deer Cross and SPCA were also on hand providing assistance.
Watch below: After arriving at the Northlands evacuation centre, a Fort McMurray resident described a chaotic scene as he escaped the wildfire.
Dave spent 10 hours on the road from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, before arriving at Northlands.
“It was pretty much bumper to bumper on the way in, and, you know, it was a long drive,” he said.
“It was pretty chaotic. The gas stations were running out of gas. A lot of the ones closed in the city, they weren’t open so there was a lot of cars that were just abandoned,” Dave said.
“They couldn’t gas up. There was no point of taking it. Even on the way out, there was a lot of cars stuck on the highway, just out of gas. It was a pretty surreal scene.”
READ MORE: Where to go if you’ve been evacuated
Dave said the flames were about 10 metres from his vehicle on the way out of Fort McMurray.
“I had my windows rolled up in my truck and even then my eyes still burned.”
Watch below: Northlands opened its doors Wednesday morning for Fort McMurray residents who escaped the wildfire in the northern Alberta city. Kent Morrison reports.
Sixty healthcare workers from the Fort McMurray Hospital that was evacuated Tuesday arrived at Northlands Wednesday morning. Many arrived still wearing their scrubs.
The Edmonton Public School Board said it is welcoming students from Fort McMurray into its system.
Students from Fort McMurray who are displaced are now able to register for an Edmonton school.
Information can be found here.
West Edmonton Mall is also offering Fort McMurray residents the opportunity to enjoy its attractions on free of charge Thursday.
Evacuees will be able to spend time at Galaxyland Amusement Park, World Waterpark, the Ice Palace, Sea Life Caverns, Sea Lions’ Rock, Professor Wem’s Adventure Golf, Dragon’s Tale Blacklight Mini-Golf and Crystal Labyrinth Mirror Maze.
Residents are required to show proof of residence to receive a special wristband that will grant free access to the attractions.
Edmonton Emergency Relief Services is collecting donations for Fort McMurray evacuees at West Edmonton Mall.
Donations of diapers, baby wipes, new pillows, new toiletries, new socks and new underwear can be taken to the Santa Maria ship.
The Telus World of Science is offering free admission to fire evacuees until May 11.
A number of Edmonton-area Conservative MPs are flying back to Alberta’s capital to meet with wildfire evacuees on Friday: Sturgeon River - Parkland MP and interim party leader Rona Ambrose, Edmonton Griesbach MP Kerry Diotte, Edmonton West MP Kelly McCauley, Edmonton Riverbend MP Matt Jeneroux and St. Albert - Edmonton MP Michael Cooper.