Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘We expect weeks, if not months, fighting this fire’

Despite much of the province seeing a cold, wet May long weekend, the Fort McMurray wildfire saw very little rain.

The west edge of the fire received between three and five millimetres of rain while the northern edge – where the fire is most active – saw none at all.

“Most of the growth is in those northern sections,” wildfire manager Chad Morrison said. “There was no rain received in the north or eastern portions… In the Fort McMurray area, there was very little rain.”

As of 10 a.m. Tuesday, the wildfire was 522,895 hectares in size.

A map showing the estimated wildfire perimeter of the Horse River wildfire (Fort McMurray wildfire) as of 10 a.m. on May 24, 2016. Areas marked in red show where hot spots were detected on May 24, 2016 and areas marked in yellow show where hot spots were detected on May 23, 2016. COURTESY: Government of Alberta

READ MORE: Phased re-entry plan for oilsands camps near Fort McMurray begins

The municipal affairs minister said there were 40 new wildfire starts on Monday.

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“What’s concerning is that most of them were camp fires that were abandoned,” Danielle Larivee said.

Morrison said the fire continued to spread to the forested areas northeast of the city and the oil facilities. It has crossed into Saskatchewan and burned 2,496 hectares in that province.

“The fire is now being fought on both sides of the border,” Morrison said.

He added while crews continue to build up fire guards, create barriers and make good progress, the region has not received significant rain in two to three months.

“We expect the potential for extreme wildfire conditions to occur,” he explained.

The forecast was calling for warmer days ahead, so officials said suppression efforts will be a challenge and air quality continues to be a concern.

International crews helping:

An additional 1,000 firefighters should be on the ground in the next two weeks from other parts of Canada, the United States and other parts of the world.

There are currently 1,200 firefighters on scene, the majority of which are Alberta crews being rotated through. This week, firefighters from across parts of Canada, and the U.S., including Alaska, will arrive. Next week, international crews, including 280 firefighters from South Africa are expected to arrive.

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“We’ve always been in contact with our partners nationally and internationally,” Morrison said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: evacuation order lifted for some work camps north of the community

However, after not receiving as much rain as hoped for over the weekend, officials made the call to bring in outside crews.

“With the cooler conditions, we have the ability to safety deploy some of those experienced firefighters,” Morrison explained.

“We have more safe places to put boots on the ground.”CANADIAN WILDFIRE SITUATION BY PROVINCE

Fort McMurray Airport:

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Commercial air service is tentatively scheduled to resume at the Fort McMurray International Airport on June 10.

“YMM is the gateway to our community,” Scott Clements, Fort McMurray Airport Authority president and CEO, said. “My colleagues and I look forward to reopening following the devastating wildfires.”

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The return of commercial air service is contingent on several factors, including the airspace requirements of the province as the fire fight continues and the voluntary re-entry date for residents.

“Safety is our first priority and while every effort will be made to adhere to this opening date, residents are reminded that this will only occur if conditions for re-entry are safe,” Clements said.

Passengers booked on flights prior to June 10 should contact their airlines for rebooking information.

RCMP detachment fully operational:

The RCMP said Tuesday its Wood Buffalo detachment was back up and running out of the Timberlea building on the north side of Fort McMurray.

The building had been closed over air quality concerns but the majority of the local detachment’s personnel have now returned to work on a regular shift schedule.

There are still 79 members from other Alberta RCMP detachments working in Fort McMurray to help with security patrols.

All personnel are staying in accommodations outside the evacuation zone.

“Having a fully-functioning detachment and our people back on the job is great news for the RCMP and this community,” Supt. Rob McCloy said. “We know that people are understandably concerned about the property they left behind, and we are working hard to keep the things safe until they can come home.”

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Whenever possible, it is RCMP practice to relieve employees who are personally affected by a local emergency as soon as is possible. However, RCMP said McCloy “insisted on contributing to emergency operations, where his knowledge of the city and its people proved invaluable.”

Restoration work in Fort McMurray:

“We are still on track for a voluntary re-entry beginning June 1,” Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said.

He stressed there is still a lot of work to be done and that many services will not be available at that time and residents should be prepared.

“There is still an awful lot of work that’s being done in terms of environmental testing,” Long said. “It’s going non-stop 24-7.” He added there will be information centres established in each neighbourhood for residents when they come back.

“Others may want to come up to Fort McMurray to… seek some closure… before returning to existing accommodations,” Larivee said.

Restoration of the hospital resumed Sunday, water quality sampling equipment is being installed in the Athabasca and Clear Water rivers, electricity is restored to more than 90 per cent of the community, and natural gas is restored to more than 99 per cent of homes.

“Progress is being made on safe drinking water but a boil water advisory remains in effect,” Larivee said.

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Watch below: While fire crews work to keep the flames away from Fort McMurray, the first wave of re-entry into the community by evacuees is still on track to begin June 1. First access will be given to those living in Anzac, downtown, the Fort McMurray First Nation and Gregoire Lake Estates. The re-entry will continue every day after with the hardest-hit areas scheduled last. Kendra Slugoski has more on what to expect.

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray fire continues to grow but re-rentry plans remain on track'
Fort McMurray fire continues to grow but re-rentry plans remain on track

A re-entry information booklet has been posted on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s website. It includes safety instructions and other information for returning residents.

Officials will also conduct a re-entry practice run before June 1 to make sure everything goes smoothly.

“We’re looking at the traffic control plan to get close to 80,000 people back to Fort McMurray in a short period of time,” Long explained.

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Here’s a look at the Fort McMurray re-entry plan, tentatively scheduled to begin Wednesday, June 1. Tonia Huynh, Global News

Jim Mandeville has been on the ground for two weeks with FirstOnSite Restoration. He said residents should be prepared for a few things upon their return.

“There’s going to be a smell. There’s going to some minor cleaning that’s required and unfortunately, for a lot of people who’ve been without power, there’s going to be an even worse smell from the refrigerator,” he explained.

Mandeville said even the satellite photos won’t fully prepare people for what to expect in person.

“I’ve been in a few commercial structures around the city – ones that are really close to the fire – where there’s very little odour, etc. and some that are further away, there’s a lot more odour inside,” he said. “It’s not something we can tell from aerial pictures.”

The pre-loaded debit card distribution centres have been moved to Alberta Works offices across Alberta, including four each in Edmonton and Calgary.

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The province hopes to have something in place soon for people who are out-of-province. Larivee stressed there is no deadline.

“If you qualify, you will get it.”

Oilsands camps:

On Monday, the Regional Emergency Operations Centre endorsed the province’s recommendation to allow phased re-entry to several camps north and south of Fort McMurray.

“Right now, I know from our oil and gas partners… they are looking at their re-entry plan, they are well aware of the criteria,” Long said. “There is no set time line.”

He stressed worker safety is the number one priority.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire now covers more than 522K hectares

The REOC supported the suggestion from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry that assessments of the following sites could begin:

AOSTRA Road corridor:

  • Suncor Baseline and MacKay River camps
  • All Brion camps
  • Birch Mountain camp
  • Sunshine camp
  • Production facilities access by AOSTRA Road

Highway 63 (south of Fort McMurray) corridor:

  • AOC
  • Hangingstone
  • Great Sand Tiger
  • Grayling Creek Fire Base

People will not be allowed to stay in the camps until Alberta Agriculture and Forestry and Alberta Health Services inspections have been done to ensure conditions are safe.

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A Google Earth maps shows where the fire has grown Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Credit: Google Earth

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