EDITOR’S NOTE: This story will be updated throughout Friday with the latest information.
The Government of Alberta approved emergency financing for the approximately 80,000 people evacuated from Fort McMurray this week, Premier Rachel Notley announced Friday morning. Each adult will receive $1,250 and each dependent will get $500. The funds will be made available in the coming days and Notley said it will cost the province about $100 million.
When details are available they will available online and or through 310-4455. The government has also asked that evacuees not in dire need of the money to not claim the cards right away so they can be expedited to those that need them most.
Notley said the details of the program are still being worked out, but it will probably be similar to the Slave Lake fire and southern Alberta floods. Notley also said she will propose to cabinet that residents of Fort McMurray who are also employed by the provincial government continue to be paid.
Watch below: There is still no timeline on when Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees might be allowed to return home. The government is now putting plans in place to support displaced residents for an extended period. Tom Vernon reports.
The government has also established the Wood Buffalo Ministerial Recovery Task Force to ensure security in the affected areas, plan for re-entry of residents and help municipal and busniess activities to resume.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake spoke publicly for the first time since her community was evacuated. She praised emergency crews for their response and assured the public she and council are “100 per cent behind our community.”
Blake said she’s been “absolutely delighted” by the way the region and its people have been treated by the province. “I am absolutely overwhelmed by what we’ve received.”
The mayor added that the images of the devastation are horrifying but that they’re not the whole story.
WATCH: Highlights from the Friday morning provincial update with Premier Rachel Notley, Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake and the Canadian Forces.
Wildrose leader Brian Jean toured the city Friday and said he was feeling more optimistic.
“We’re not out of the situation yet and we could still see some trouble depending on how the winds blow, but truthfully… today looks to be a little bit better of a day and we are looking, frankly, very optimistic considering where we could be today. Two days ago we thought it was going to be much worse.”
He said about 80 to 85 per cent of homes are in perfect shape, as is the major infrastructure, including city hall and the hospital.
Massive convoy efforts to bring people south
It’s expected to take four days to get thousands of evacuees who took shelter at oilfield camps north of Fort McMurray out and to accommodations in Edmonton and Calgary.
The community remains blocked off with road closures on Highways 63 and Highway 881, and there is still no specific timeline on when people will be able to return home.
On Thursday thousands of people were flown out of the camps by the Department of National Defence and commercial airlines brought in by industry. Notley said they hoped to fly another 5,500 people out on Friday.
“An estimated 7,000 of these residents were evacuated yesterday by flights organized by energy companies, the AER and DND, executed by the wonderful people who work at WestJet, Arctic Air , DND and other carriers,” the premier said Friday. “Thank you so much.”
Watch below: While a highway convoy allowed some evacuees to drive their own vehicles to safety, hundreds of other wildfire evacuees initially pushed north of Fort McMurray, are being airlifted out. Sarah Kraus was at the airport as many arrived on Friday.
For the first time Friday, a convoy allowed people to drive their own vehicles south. The convoy was stopped for one hour because of safety concerns but restarted again.
At 6 a.m. Friday, RCMP began escorted convoys, 50 vehicles at a time. The convoys are moving through Fort McMurray on Highway 63, carrying on for another 20 kilometres south, and then drivers are being released to go on their own. At that point another convoy of 50 cars will begin. About 500 vehicles are expected to be escorted out on Friday, and the entire convoy efforts are expected to take about four days.
“Food, water and fuel are being provided by emergency personnel along the route,” Notley said.
At about 1 p.m. on Friday, the convoy had to stop for about an hour because of wildfire smoke on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray. They resumed about an hour later.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m. Friday, the RCMP said the convoys were being suspended for the evening to ensure safety but said they would resume at 6 a.m. Saturday morning as long as conditions allowed for it.
The province later said 1,200 vehicles were able to pass through a control point under RCMP escort to evacuate the area north of Fort McMurray to safe areas south of the city.
Watch below: Thousands of residents forced from Fort McMurray drove through the devastated town as part of a southbound convoy on Friday.They are capturing surreal pictures of the damage and sharing their stories with Global News.
Drivers are not allowed to stop at their homes along the way, as it is still too dangerous. The RCMP said they will be marshalling the convoys with pilot cars at the front and rear, with overhead air monitoring from RCMP in DND Griffin helicopters. All intersections within the city will be controlled by police to make sure no vehicles or people become detached from the convoy.
Once released south of town, RCMP are asking drivers in the convoy not to stop until they reach the Edmonton area, or wherever else they are headed.
In preparation for the convoys, gasoline trucks were sent in Thursday to fuel up vehicles for the long trip through the city and to the south. Fort McMurray is 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
The fire grew to 101,000 hectares on Friday, said Alberta Wildfire Manager Chad Morrison. It remained wrapped around the west and southern edges of the city. If Fort McMurray were the face of a clock, flames surrounded it from the numbers four to 11.
The fire, which had been menacing the oilsands capital since the weekend, rode a rapid shift in winds Tuesday afternoon to cut through the city on an east-west axis. It divided the main road and sent approximately 88,000 residents fleeing in opposite directions under a mandatory evacuation order.
Aided by high winds, scorching heat and low humidity, the fire grew from 75 square kilometres Tuesday to 100 square kilometres on Wednesday. By Thursday it was almost nine times that at 850 square kilometres — roughly equivalent to the size of Calgary. By Friday it has reached 1,000 square kilometres.
“I do expect that there’s a high potential that this fire could double in size by the end of the day tomorrow, ” Morrison said Friday afternoon.
Watch below: In a matter of days, it’s gone from 10-thousand hectares to a stunning 100-thousand hectares. A wildfire that has devastated Fort McMurray continues to burn. Shallima Maharaj has the latest from south of Fort McMurray Friday night.
However, winds shifted to out of the southwest and they were expected to push the flames away from the community into the forest. Morrison said that was good news for the Gregoire area and Nexen’s Long Lake facility.
Regional fire chief Darby Allen took to social media late in the evening to send residents a videotaped message.
“We’re still here, we’re still battling,” he said. “Things have calmed down in the city a little bit, but guys are out as we speak, fighting fires, trying to protect your property.
“The beast is still up, it’s surrounding the city, and we’re here doing our very best for you.”
Fire damage update
Here is the latest fire damage update from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, as of 11:55 a.m. Friday.
- 12 structures in Anzac were destroyed, spot fires remained, but fire was under control.
- Fire had not reached Gregoire Lake Estates/Fort McMurray First Nation and crews were working to prevent it from spreading.
As of Thursday night:
- North Abasand was on fire. The radio/cell tower was under threat.
- Significant damage sustained to Prospect area. Fire crews prevented it from crossing Confederation Way.
- Serious damage to the Old Airport Road structures.
- New airport facility not damaged.
- Fire Hall 5 has no significant damage.
- Saprae Creek sustained significant damage to 30 per cent of its area.
- Downtown is largely intact, hospital and other critical infrastructure unaffected.
- Stone Creek area remained an active fire zone.
- Birchwood trails remained a priority from a strategic firefighting standpoint; crews working hard to protect.
“There is no doubt the damage is extensive, said Notley. “It will take many months to repair.”
Watch below: Global News obtained video from inside Fort McMurray Thursday morning. Global Edmonton reporter Fletcher Kent takes us through the devastation.
WATCH BELOW: Officials say the Fort McMurray wildfire, which has already ravaged the northern Alberta community, could possibly double in size on Saturday. Gord Steinke and Shallima Maharaj spent all of Friday in the fire zone and have the latest on the blaze.
On Thursday, Alberta announced a province-wide fire ban. On Friday, Minister Danielle Larivee said a province-wide ban on recreational use of off-highway vehicles.
That ban, effective immediately, applies to recreational use on public lands and parks, including off-highway trials.
Fort McMurray still not safe
Premier Notley stressed on Friday that Fort McMurray is not safe and urged people not to return.
Lac La Biche reception centre grows
About 1,000 additional evacuees arrived at the Bold Centre in Lac La Biche Thursday, bringing the registration total to 3,600 at the reception centre.
Over 350 evacuees stayed on cots Thursday night. Over 700 evacuees have been placed with residents who have opened their homes throughout the small northeastern Alberta hamlet. Other evacuees have moved in with their families, friends or continued south looking for somewhere comfortable to stay.
A number of motor homes also popped up in the parking lot of the evacuation centre and area campsites are busy with evacuees. They are united by a common loss, each of them sharing harrowing stories of escaping the fire, and a common uncertainty about what will happen next.
Watch below: Stress, emotions run high as Lac La Biche evacuation centre overflows with Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees
While Lac La Biche has tried to take in all the evacuees who have come its way, the community is unable to handle another influx of people like it saw Thursday.
The mayor of the county told Global News he is directing people to Edmonton or a newly opened centre in St. Paul. The county is also expecting to reopen schools to students Monday, which could be problematic because the high school is actually attached to the Bold Centre.
On Friday, a long-term camp was set up on the west side of Lac La Biche. Fifteen families were expected to arrive there Friday night and the Black Diamond Group offered to set up trailers which, in the past, were used in the oil fields at well sites. Dorms are also being set up to accommodate another 30 people right away.
Edmonton has taken in 1,800 people at its reception centre but Mayor Iveson said Friday they’re expecting more as the convoy and flights bring more evacuees south. The Edmonton centre can accommodate up to 4,400 people.
Notley and Iveson said the province and city are working together to come up with more permanent transitional housing for evacuees.
“So far the communication has been open and collaborative and we look forward to the federal government joining the response as well,” Iveson said. “This is going to need everybody.”
The mayor said, thanks to vacancy in the market and some generous landlords offering free or deeply discounted rates, there are housing options. They stressed evacuees need to register at Redcross.ca so they know what the needs are.
Watch below: The devastating wildfire in Fort McMurray caused a wave of evacuations and chaos as tens of thousands of residents fled the flames. See how the disaster unfolded over the course of the week.
Red Cross donations an unprecedented “Canadian moment”
The Canadian Red Cross says people from across the country have come together to show their support and compassion for Fort McMurray, donating $30 million for the relief effort in the
northern Alberta community. Canadian Red Cross President Conrad Sauve says that just on Thursday, more than 100,000 people texted his organization to donate.
Calling it an unprecedented “Canadian moment,” Sauve says the Red Cross is working with Alberta and Ottawa to ensure that those in need will receive help.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that Ottawa has met all of the Alberta government’s requests for assistance, including providing air assets and 7000 cots for evacuees in emergency shelters, with 13,000 more on the way.
“We continue to monitor the situation closely with high temperatures and shifting winds changing rapidly, and we continue to urge caution to all evacuees,” Trudeau said at a funding announcement in Toronto.
“I’d like to remind folks to keep donating the Red Cross. The federal government will match individual donations as we all stand together, as Canadians do, for our friends and family.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Health Canada is working to prepare for humanitarian needs like clean water for people left stranded or displaced.
The Public Health Agency of Canada told Global News it is providing reception centres with more than 5,000 beds and blankets from its National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
The Federal and Alberta governments pledged to match all donations made to the Red Cross in aid of the victims. The Red Cross is accepting donations via phone, online or through text message. Details can be found at www.redcross.ca.
With files from John Cotter, The Canadian Press, Emily Mertz, Global News.