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‘Extreme’ air quality conditions in Fort McMurray could delay re-entry plans

WATCH ABOVE: It was another long, hot day for firefighters in the Fort McMurray area. Crews continue to battle hot spots in the city, while the fire has grown to nearly 300,000 hectares in size. Tom Vernon has the latest on the situation.

While crews have made good progress on five factors required for residents to re-enter Fort McMurray, extremely poor air quality could hinder work in the city.

On a scale of one to 10 – with 10 being considered extreme – the air quality level on Monday was 38.

“The air quality health index has reached extreme levels in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area,” Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Health Services, said.

The index comes up with a level based on measurements of smoke, ozone and Nitrogen Dioxide.

“In extreme conditions, it can generate results well over 10,” Grimsrud explained.

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She said in these conditions, people in the area should be wearing the appropriate respiratory masks and limit their exposure to the air.

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“It’s an irritant in your lungs,” Grimsrud added. “Even if you don’t have any underlying disease, it’s still going to make a difference in your ability to breathe.”

Watch below: Premier Notley and health officials update the Fort McMurray wildfire status at 11 a.m. MT Monday

Air quality is being monitored on an hourly basis at stations in Fort McMurray, Anzac, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan. Still, the premier explained it is impacting some restoration processes.

Watch below: Live video feed from the WBEA’s Patricia McInnes air monitoring station in the Timberlea area of Fort McMurray. 

“The re-entry of additional response personnel has been delayed, as has the vehicle retrieval,” Rachel Notley explained.

“It is clear that this is something that could potentially delay recovery work and re-entry.”

Wildfire manager Chad Morrison said workers will be given more days off and shorter shifts outside to protect them from the air health risks. Firefighters will also fight the blaze downwind where there is fresh air.

“We are recommending that all workers in the area use the suggested respiratory precautions,” Morrison added.

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“We got a real jump on the re-entry work,” Alberta Wildfires’ Scott Long said. “This [air quality] issue cropped up recently. Most of the workers that are up there – if not all –  have air masks.”

Oilfield camps evacuated:

On Monday afternoon, all camps north of Fort McMurray up to and including the Ruth Lake Camp were told to evacuate.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Mandatory evacuation issued for camps north of city

Fire Status:

As of Monday morning, the Fort McMurray wildfire was roughly 285,000 hectares and was between 10 and 12 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border.

There were 1,100 firefighters, 46 helicopters and more than 200 pieces of heavy equipment battling the fire.

“We expect a lot of fire activity today,” Notley said, explaining that warmer weather and windy conditions were forecast for the next few days.

Morrison said the next two or three days will be tough, especially on the western and northern flanks of the fire because of the south winds. He said they also expect potential lightning starts.

A look inside Fort McMurray around 4:45 p.m. Monday, May 16, 2016.
A look inside Fort McMurray around 4:45 p.m. Monday, May 16, 2016. Supplied to Global News

Re-entry plans:

The province explained five conditions must be met before residents can return:

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– The wildfire is no longer an imminent threat to the community;
– Critical infrastructure is restored;
– Essential services are restored;
– Hazardous areas are secured;
– Local government is re-established.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Alberta oilfield workers head back to camps 

Notley said Monday that air quality and hot spots were a concern.

“There continue to be hot spots surrounding Fort McMurray. Any one of them could flare up when the wind changes.”

While she would not provide a timeline on possible re-entry the premier said more information would likely be available by the end of this week.

WATCH: Air quality continues to be an issue for emergency workers in Fort McMurray

Air quality continues to be an issue for emergency workers in Fort McMurray
Air quality continues to be an issue for emergency workers in Fort McMurray

Restoration progress had been made, she added.

– Electricity service has been restored to most of the city;
– Gas service has been restored to 50 per cent of city;
– Work continues to restore water treatment plant to regular operations;
– Landfill is back in operation;
– Airport operations can resume when given the OK; commercial flights will not resume until re-entry into Fort McMurray is permitted;

“There has been no damage to the main terminal building or the north terminal building,” Fort McMurray International Airport CEO Scott Clements said. “While there has been some damage to several structures on the north side of the airport, YMM remains fully operational for emergency operations.”

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– 19,000 structures assessed;
– Urgent care centre established for medical care in Syncrude facility;
– Goal to get ER up and running by end of May;
– Goal to get fences securing unsafe areas by May 18;
– Notley meeting with Regional Muncipality of Wood Buffalo Monday to get input on re-entry process;
– Four telephone town halls took place last week – another planned for tonight.

READ MORE: Residents see first images of homes following Fort McMurray wildfire

Pre-loaded debit cards:

– More than $60 million in cash cards has been distributed to evacuees;
– The two Calgary centres have been consolidated into one (at BMO Centre);
– The centre in Lac La Biche is closed. Distribution now taking place out of the local Alberta Works office.

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