May 18, 2016 3:08 pm
Updated: May 21, 2016 3:15 pm

Phased re-entry into Fort McMurray after wildfire to begin June 1

WATCH ABOVE: On Wednesday, displaced Fort McMurray residents finally heard the timeline they've been waiting for: they they might be allowed to reutn home after a catastrophic wildfire forced them out of the community. Premier Rachel Notley says the target is between June 1 and June 15 but an exact date still hinges on whether safety concerns are addressed first. Quinn Ohler explains.

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Premier Rachel Notley said Fort McMurray-area residents will be allowed to return home on a voluntary, phased basis starting June 1, as long as several conditions for safe re-entry are met.

As long as the five conditions (listed below) are met, Notley said the return should be completed by June 15.

“If conditions change, as they did just this week, the voluntary re-entry may begin later than June 1,” Notley said. “We are making our decisions based on the best advice from the most informed and dedicated officials.”

The re-entry will happen in phases, to allow for efficient traffic flow along Highway 63.

Watch below: Premier Rachel Notley outlines conditional re-entry plan for Fort McMurray-area residents. 

“This re-entry plan is voluntary,” Notley said. “We anticipate that many people will not return as early as June 1 and we will support them in that decision.”

Those who live in the least-damaged areas of the region will be allowed to return home first. Houses and properties that have been severely damaged will be fenced off.

The dates and communities scheduled for re-entry are as follows:

  • Zone 1: Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Gregoire Lake Estates (June 1)
  • Zone 2: Parsons Creek, Stone Creek, Timberlea, Eagle Ridge, Dickinsfield (June 2)
  • Zone 3: Thickwood, Wood Buffalo (June 3)
  • Zone 4(a): Gregoire, Prairie Creek, Saprae Creek Estates (June 3)
  • Zone 4(b): Waterways, Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace, Draper (June 4)

The five conditions identified by the Alberta government are as follows:

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire grows to 423K hectares

Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA Brian Jean, who lost his home in the fire, said it was a relief to hear a timeline for his constituents’ return but echoed the premier’s sentiments that safety must remain the number one priority going forward.

“I know and understand that the people of Fort McMurray, my family, my friends, are going through a lot of anxiety,” Jean said.

“They are tired, stressed and waiting to hear this news, and I thank the premier for it.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean loses his home

Jean said he is “fiercely proud” of Fort McMurray and all Albertans, adding he will do everything he can to ensure the community is rebuilt.

“We will rebuild our city better that it’s ever been before and I will stand beside you every step of the way,” he said, holding back tears.

“I will have my tool belt on and my shovel in my hand and we will clean it up and rebuild it.”

Watch below: Wildrose leader and Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA Brian Jean says ‘we will rebuild our city’

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the journey to rebuild is a long one, but said a timeline for re-entry helps make the journey feel a bit shorter.

“This is a wonderful piece of news for us today… We do have a home to go back to… We will rebuild and we will be better at the other end of this long journey,” she said.

Blake urged residents not to expect to see the same place they left when they return.

“Envision and imagine with me what we will be a year from now, five years from now and 10 years from now,” Blake said.

“If you go early, you’re going to have a very different community than you had when you left it. If you wait a little bit longer, all of the efforts that are going into making it the same type of community to go back to will be much further advanced.”

What to do before you return to home

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has released higher-resolution images of the region in order to provide people a more accurate depiction of the state of their homes.

The premier and mayor Blake warned viewing the images will be difficult for some.

“I caution all citizens viewing these images to keep this in mind. No words can describe the emotions these images will convey and the devastation we have experienced,” Blake said in a message on the municipality’s website.

To view the images, visit the municipality’s website.

Watch below: It’s the news residents of Fort McMurray have been waiting for. On Wednesday, Premier Rachel Notley announced plans are being made to hopefully allow evacuees to re-enter their city on June 1. After a horrific wildfire ripped through their community, many residents don’t know what they’ll be returning to. But Wood Buffalo officials met Wednesday afternoon to plan as much as possible. Shallima Maharaj reports.

Other things to consider before returning home include:

  • Call your insurance company about what it requires from you regarding information about your property and any damage it may have sustained
  • Speak with your mortgage holder/lender about mortgage/payment options

When Wood Buffalo council met on Wednesday afternoon, councillors agreed to waive utility charges for May and June as well as provide relief for penalties on outstanding amounts owed. It also made 385 residential units available through the Wood Buffalo Housing and Development Corporation but the municipality is also looking at hotels, condos and property managers to shore up temporary housing options for those who are returning without a home.

Some people should not return home right away

Notley stressed that not everyone should make plans to return to the fire-ravaged region right away. Those who have breathing difficulties, those who have high-risk pregnancies or are nearing the end of their pregnancy and those who are receiving cancer treatment, dialysis or other specialized medical treatments are asked not to return right away.

Some people will not have a home to return to. Notley said those who have lost their homes will be able to inspect their properties and collect any surviving items.

The government has established the Wildfire Evacuation Transitional Accommodation Benefit to provide eligible evacuees with a stable place to live until they can return home. Albertans can apply for the benefit at any Alberta Works office.

Watch below: Notley says government will help eligible evacuees with Wildfire Evacuation Transitional Accommodation Benefit

What to bring with you when you return home

The province recommends residents bring a three- to seven-day supply of food, including water, as a boil water advisory will be in place until nearly the end of June.

Because fridges and freezers may not be usable, people are asked to bring non-perishable items or store perishables in a cooler.

Some pharmacies and the hospital will be functioning at basic levels, so it’s recommended people fill prescriptions before returning home.

Other items to consider packing include long-sleeved shirts, long pants, rubber boots, flashlights, batteries, camera or video camera to document damage, hand soap and hand sanitizer.

What to expect when you return home

Natural gas service is scheduled to be up and running by June 1, Notley said, and electricity has already been restored to undamaged homes. All roads are expected to be open and safe by June 1.

However, the hospital will not be running at full capacity by June 1. Still, Notley said it will be equipped to offer primary care, public health, support for home care, some mental health supports, lab services, X-ray and CT imaging, pharmacy and limited types of emergency surgery.

Ground and air ambulance service will be available to transport urgent cases to Edmonton if and when it’s needed, Notley said.

READ MORE: What Fort McMurray residents need to know about Canada Post delivery

Notley said schools in the area will not be conducting formal classes until September and that all students will advance to the next grade.

“Let me be clear that this re-entry plan is voluntary. It’s a matter of allowing those people who wish to return on a voluntary basis to do so in a phased and cautious way,” the premier said.

Current status of Fort McMurray

The announcement comes one day after Notley said the government would have to give the re-entry plan a second look after an explosion in a Fort McMurray neighbourhood Monday night.

READ MORE: Several homes damaged in explosion in Fort McMurray neighbourhood

On Tuesday afternoon, Notley said gas had successfully been restored to about 60 per cent of the community.

Structural damage assessments were set to be completed Tuesday afternoon. About 89 per cent of structures inspected have been deemed safe to occupy. Ten per cent of structures have been destroyed and about one per cent needed a closer look, Notley explained.

However, restoration work in the community has been hampered in the past few days due to extremely poor air quality. As of 2 p.m. MT Wednesday, the air quality health index was 11 in Fort McMurray. That’s measured on a scale of one to 10.

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

It’s been more than two weeks since more than 80,000 Fort McMurray-area residents were forced from their homes. Many have spent the past two weeks wondering when they might be able to return home.

As of Wednesday morning, the Fort McMurray wildfire—previously dubbed “the beast”—covered about 423,000 hectares.

With files from Emily Mertz, Global News. 

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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