May 13, 2016 11:10 am
Updated: May 14, 2016 12:36 am

Fort McMurray wildfire: Justin Trudeau gets first-hand look at devastation

WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau touches down in Fort McMurray

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EDMONTON – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Edmonton on Friday his visit to Fort McMurray was a “powerful experience” before promising wildfire evacuees the federal government will support them as they rebuild their community.

“Canadians are standing with you,” he said. “You can lean on us and you can count on us.”

Trudeau also thanked first responders, people who have helped provide lodging for displaced residents and other provinces for their assistance in responding to the disaster. He also thanked Canadians for donating over $86 million to the Red Cross in the wake of the disaster and reiterated his government’s commitment to matching the donations.

Watch below: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley address the media in Edmonton after visiting Fort McMurray on Friday.

Watch below: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Premier Rachel Notley for a tour of Fort McMurray on Friday. The visit marked Trudeau’s first look at the devastation a massive wildfire left behind. Tom Vernon reports.


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The prime minister was asked by reporters what his impressions were when arriving in Fort McMurray.

“The first thing you notice is the heavy smoke, the smell in the air,” he said. “From the airport, you can tell the scale and scope of what just happened.”

Trudeau added that upon flying over the community, the first thing he noticed was the blackened forest surrounding Fort McMurray. He added that he first saw the downtown and several neighbourhoods that look unaffected before flying over the devastated parts of the city.

“There was a moment where we saw on the sidewalk a little child’s plastic scooter. The firefighters and first responders said ‘nobody’s touched that since the evacuation.’ That little plastic scooter – whatever little boy or girl was using that just before the evacuation – they’re safe. They’re alive.”

A pink scooter sits untouched in Fort McMurray Friday, May 13, 2016 after a wildfire tore through the community.

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The prime minister also confirmed Edmonton and more parts of Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and southern BC will qualify for extended EI benefits as of July. When asked by a reporter what prompted the change, Trudeau said new data was behind the decision and that it was unrelated to the wildfire.

READ MORE: Trudeau announces EI benefits extended to three western regions

Premier Rachel Notley told reporters she “nagged” Trudeau about the EI benefits and added that “given the oil price shock, we knew these rules needed to change.”

Notley added that the federal government has been very helpful in responding to the disaster and that when Alberta asked for the help of the armed forces, it was provided “swiftly, abundantly and with no questions asked.”

The premier called the disaster “heartbreaking” but said Fort McMurray will recover and that “we’ve seen once again the resiliency of Albertans.”

Watch below: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Premier Rachel Notley for a tour of Fort McMurray on Friday. Later that afternoon, he spoke with reporters about his visit in the disaster zone. Fletcher Kent has more.

Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shook hands with the man who led the fire fight in Fort McMurray before heading up to see the devastation first-hand Friday.

Trudeau was presented with his own Fort McMurray fire jacket by fire chief Darby Allen on the tarmac at the Edmonton International Airport prior to his plane trip 435 km northeast to Fort McMurray.

“I heard there were situations and peculiarities in this fire that give us pause for reflection on how we move forward,” Trudeau told Allen.

“I’m very, very interested in not just what we manage to do to get through this one but what we can do around minimizing the impacts of the next one because it will come.”

As of Friday evening, the wildfire was roughly 241,457 hectares in size and about 13 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. There were more than 700 firefighters battling the blaze, along with 134 pieces of heavy equipment, 37 helicopters and 13 air tankers.

READ MORE: Edmonton, Sask., B.C. now meet requirements for extended EI, documents show

Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley flew up Friday morning in a Dash 300 for Trudeau’s first look at the fire, which forced all of its residents to flee more than a week ago.

Together with Allen, Alberta’s senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison and Melissa Blake, the mayor of the Regional Municpality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, they toured the region in a helicopter.

Some cabinet ministers who are part of a task force on rebuilding Fort McMurray, including Kent Hehr and Amarjeet Sohi and Jim Carr along with David Yurdiga, the MP for Fort McMurray-Athabasca, also took part in the tour.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Fort McMurray Friday morning as he kicks off his first visit to the fire-ravaged region.

The flight took them over a patchwork of devastated neighbourhoods where some homes still stand, while others have been burned to their foundations. It’s estimated the fire destroyed more than 2,400 structures, but firefighters managed to save 25,000.

Trudeau then toured the city and met with some first responders. The prime minister said, despite following updates and watching images on TV, the scale and the disaster didn’t hit him until Friday.

WATCH: Prime Minister Trudeau to Fort McMurray disaster relief workers: I don’t think most Canadians understand what happened here

“I don’t think Canadians yet understand what happened. They know there was a fire. They’re beginning to hear the wonderful news that so much of the town was saved,” he told 150 firefighters and first responders after his aerial tour by military helicopter of the northern Alberta city.

“They don’t yet understand that that wasn’t a fluke of wind or rain or luck that happened.

“This was the extraordinary response by people such as yourself. The work you did to save so much of this community, to save so much of this city and its downtown core … was unbelievable.”

The prime minister also gave reassurances that the government will be there as the oilsands city recovers and rebuilds.

“For many years, Fort McMurray contributed huge amounts to Canada’s well-being, to the growth of our economy. Now this community needs help, and I can guarantee you, Canada will be here for this community.”

 

The fire chief said having the prime minister visit Fort McMurray will be a morale boost.

“Right now the residents aren’t there but there are hundreds and hundreds of emergency workers. I think they’ll get a lift from that,” Allen said.

“We’ve been working hard for the last two or three days on this re-entry plan (for residents). We’ve got a few challenges around that.”

WATCH: Darby Allen shows Justin Trudeau around ruins of Fort McMurray

Blake said it is critical for Trudeau to tour the burned neighbourhoods.

“I’m personally very appreciative that he’s coming in to survey it first-hand, because once you see it, you know just how daunting the work will be, but how important it is to make it back to what it was before.”

Alberta senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison is getting his second look at the fire. He said crews just couldn’t stop the fire from torching homes, even though they got on it quickly.

“We were throwing everything at it and it wasn’t phasing it. Mother Nature was going to take it and go for a roll.”

The fire is now more than 2,400 square kilometres in size and has moved away from the city. It is expected to burn in forested areas for many more weeks.

Blake said it was critical for Trudeau to tour the burned neighbourhoods.

“I’m personally very appreciative that he’s coming in to survey it first-hand because once you see it, you know just how daunting the work will be but how important it is to make it back to what it was before.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: 2nd debit card distribution centre added in Edmonton

Hehr said it’s a personal trip for him as well. Hehr was a member of the provincial Liberal opposition before running federally last year. He said it’s important to go home and show people that the federal government will be there for them in the reconstruction.

“It’s very difficult for me as an Albertan,” said Hehr.

“Hey, I used to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League where we had the opportunity to go up and play the Fort McMurray Oil Barons when I was a kid,” he said.

“I still have some people from that town that live up in Fort Mac, who have built lives there who are now going through a very difficult time.”

Morrison was getting his second look at the fire Friday. He said crews spotted the fire early that that fateful afternoon last week, but couldn’t stop it from torching homes and launching the exodus of more than 80,000 people.

“We had firefighters on it immediately,” said Morrison. He said there were two helicopters and four water bombers.

“We were throwing everything at it and it wasn’t phasing it. Mother Nature was going to take it and go for a roll.”

Trudeau is scheduled to fly back to Edmonton in the afternoon to hold a news conference with Notley in Edmonton.

Public reaction to Trudeau’s visit

Fort McMurray evacuees staying in Edmonton said they were glad the prime minister made the trip, but some felt he should have done it much more quickly after the fire.

“At that time, it was a disaster,” Mobina Chaudhry said. “The people were really anxious and panicked. When they’re coming out… even a few words can support them. He is very late.”

“Now, no matter what he has to say, we already have all the information,” she added. “We’re already settled, we already know, we’ve already figured it out.”

Lorne Soles lost his Beacon Hill home in the fire. He said the support the evacuees have been getting from the Red Cross and the people of Edmonton have been “absolutely fantastic… Everybody’s been terrific towards us.”

Still, he’s surprised it took the leader of the country nearly two weeks to visit.

“We’ve been through a lot of hardship,” Soles said. “I would have thought he might have been here a little bit sooner.”

“I’m glad he’s here. I’m hoping he’ll be able to help us in Fort McMurray,” he added. “He’s a leader so he needs to show his presence.”

Aamir Chaudhry is hopeful the prime minister’s visit will open his eyes to the extent of the damage.

“I hope he will give more money to Fort McMurray so everything will be restored in a timely manner.”

Watch below: On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his pledge to displaced Fort McMurray residents to help them recover from a disastrous wildfire. On Friday, Trudeau toured the ravaged city and promised to do what it takes to help Fort McMurray bounce back. Fletcher Kent reports.

 

With files from Slav Kornik, Emily Mertz and Phil Heidenreich Global News.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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