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Fort McMurray wildfire: City access begins June 1; residents asked to respect phased re-entry

Click to play video: 'Wildfire evacuees prepare to re-enter Fort McMurray' Wildfire evacuees prepare to re-enter Fort McMurray
WATCH ABOVE: On Wednesday, thousands of evacuees will start filing back into Fort McMurray after a massive wildfire ripped through the community earlier this month. On Tuesday, emergency officials gave the green light for re-rentry. Fletcher Kent reports on how the news is being received – May 31, 2016

While residents are urged to follow the phased re-entry plan, access to all of Fort McMurray begins Wednesday, officials said.

Zone 1 – Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Gregoire Lake Estates – is scheduled for re-entry beginning at 8 a.m. June 1. But residents of other neighbourhoods won’t be turned away, nor prevented from accessing their homes except in Beacon Hill, Waterways and Abasand, deemed uninhabitable for now.

The aim of the phased plan is to ensure resources such as welcome centres aren’t overwhelmed and that essential services are in place, officials said.

Watch below: Officials with the Wood Buffalo municipality and RCMP speak about re-entry. 

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“Give us the opportunity to stagger the approach and phase it in,” Bob Couture, director of emergency management with the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, said.

READ MORE: What will be up and running in Fort McMurray upon re-entry 

While there won’t be roadblocks preventing access to other safe neighbourhoods, there will be an enhanced RCMP presence.

“The number of police patrols within Fort McMurray will be increased… until everyone is home safe,” Wood Buffalo RCMP Supt. Rob McCloy said.

McCloy said he wasn’t concerned that looting or other criminal activities would take place during the re-entry process.

“If a resident returns home and it appears some kind criminal activity has taken place, call the RCMP complaint line,” McCloy said.

He added the Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment is fully operational.

READ MORE: ‘Frozen in time’: Fort McMurray residents brace for return

The municipality said if people return before the recommended time, resources may not be ready in their neighbourhood. For example, ATCO crews turning on gas service by zone. So, if you go back early, the gas may not be on for your house.

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In addition, Couture said if everyone comes back at once, “we’re going to overwhelm the system.”

A survey done by Red Cross indicates 75 per cent of residents plan to come back to Fort McMurray. Muncipal officials are expecting roughly 14,000 to return Wednesday.

WATCH: Speaking to media Tuesday, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says the re-entry procedure may be shocking to evacuees.
Click to play video: '‘I think it will be shocking’: Notley on what Fort McMurray evacuees can expect' ‘I think it will be shocking’: Notley on what Fort McMurray evacuees can expect
‘I think it will be shocking’: Notley on what Fort McMurray evacuees can expect – May 31, 2016

Re-entry plan:

“Tomorrow morning we expect the first wave of Fort McMurray residents displaced by the wildfire to return to the community,” Alberta Emergency Management Agency’s Scott Long said.

Long asked returning residents to respect the timelines for each zone. He warned that the re-entry is phased to maintain order on the highways leading into the area.

“We anticipate tomorrow will be a very busy day on the highways into Fort McMurray,” Long said. “Please allow plenty of time.”

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“Gas up,” he added. “Gas stations are limited …north of Wandering River.”

RCMP will be monitoring traffic on the ground and by air. STARS Air Ambulance will also be on standby.

READ MORE: What to bring for Fort McMurray re-entry 

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 (Friday, June 3)
  • Zone 4(b): Grayling Terrace, Draper (June 4)

For those requiring transportation back to Fort McMurray, buses will also be shuttling residents back.

Long said officials had the capacity to bus 2,000 people but so far, only 150 had registered for the transportation.

He said Fort McMurray is prepared to handle 100 per cent of residents coming back this week, but expects between 40 and 50 per cent will return – temporarily or permanently.

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“At the end of the day, we’re bringing back 85,000 people to the community of Fort McMurray,” Long said, admitting it will be a big operation. “Safety is the overriding factor. We have done everything in terms of mitigation to reduce the risks in terms of transportation. We are doing a phased entry… The biggest risk would be people not following the advice the recommendations of the municipality and the government.”

While residents are encouraged to follow the phased re-entry dates, access to the community opens at 8 a.m. June 1. Officials will restrict access to Zone 4b until Saturday, June 4.

Global News will have crews in Fort McMurray for the re-entry process. You can follow their coverage through the live blog below:

Re-entry criteria met:

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Tuesday that the five criteria required for the June 1 re-entry start date to stand had been met.

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The conditions were:

  • Wildfire is no longer an imminent threat to the community;
  • Critical infrastructure is repaired to provide basic service;
  • Essential services, such as fire, EMS, police and health care, are restored to a basic level;
  • Hazardous areas are secure;
  • Local government is re-established.

“I am pleased to report today that these conditions have been met, and voluntary phased re-entry will begin June 1 as planned, with the exception of the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways, as outlined yesterday,” Notley said.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: Hundreds of undamaged homes not safe to live in

On Monday, the province said as many as 2,000 residents whose homes weren’t damaged by wildfire would not be allowed to move back this week after tests showed unsafe toxic levels.

Tests revealed the presence of chemicals in the ash, soil and air in the communities of Abasand, Waterways and Beacon Hill. No one living in those three neighbourhoods can stay and Notley said residents there are being told they need to find alternative accommodations “essentially for the rest of the summer.”

Notley said Tuesday conditions will be assessed daily and, if the situation changes, the re-entry schedule could be adjusted.

“Despite the significant work that has been done, the city today is not the city that residents left behind a month ago. A boil-water advisory remains in effect, some health-care services are not available, and many businesses will not be open,” the premier said.

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“To residents choosing to return this week, I ask you to not go home without a plan. Bring food, water and any other supplies needed for the next two weeks. Take your time and travel safely. The highways will be busy, which is why it is so important to respect the phased re-entry plan. Please do not return until the designated date for your neighbourhood.

“If you were living in a rental unit, please be sure to confirm with your landlord that your building is ready for re-occupation before returning to the city,” Notley said.

“There is still a long road ahead of us, and we will travel it together. Alberta continues to stand with you.”

As Fort McMurray residents prepare to return to their community this week, Alberta RCMP are preparing as well to make it a safe re-entry.

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The RCMP is finalizing plans to make sure everyone returns safely. The Fort McMurray detachment is fully operational and full police services will be provided to returning residents. The wildfire forced the RCMP out of the Timberlea detachment on May 3. The building was re-opened May 24.

Several re-entry information centres are being set up to help returning evacuees. They will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fort McMurray residents can drop by the following centre locations:

Fort McMurray Composite High School (Main Centre #1)
9803 King Street Fort McMurray
Government of Alberta debit cards available here

Westwood High School/YMCA (Main Centre #2)
221 Tundra Drive, Fort McMurray
Government of Alberta debit cards available here

Vista Ridge
1 Spruce Valley Drive, Saprae Creek

Holy Trinity High School
230 Powder Drive, Fort McMurray

Eagle Ridge Community Centre
301 Sparrow Hawk Drive, Fort McMurray

Anzac Community Hall
105B-4 Christina Drive, Anzac

Oil Sands Discovery Centre
515 MacKenzie Boulevard, Fort McMurray

Wildfire status:

As of noon Tuesday, the 581,695-hectare wildfire was still listed as out of control. There were 1,211 people fighting the blaze.

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Chad Morrison, manager with Alberta Wildfire said the fire perimetre was about 1,000 kilometres and 40 per cent of that perimetre was contained.

“At this time, the fire does not pose any immediate threat to Fort McMurray or any surrounding communities,” he said.

“We have had minimal growth in the last number of days,” Morrison added. “While it’s still an active fire, the immediate threat has passed.”

WATCH: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley responds to concerns raised by RMWB councillor about re-entry to Fort McMurray.

Health conditions:

Dr. Karen Grimsrud, chief medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services said the neighbourhoods that have been cleared for re-entry are safe for healthy adults and children over seven.

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However, she stressed the re-entry is voluntary and that evacuees should make their own decisions about returning or not.

“Make decisions upon returning based on what is best for [your] health and the health of [your] families.”

Grimsrud said the current air quality index in Fort McMurray was Level 1 (lowest on a scale of 1-10). She said air quality had stabilized over the last few days.

AHS warned only basic health services will be available in Fort McMurray for some time so those who require frequent medical care should not return yet.

“It’s been a stressful and difficult few weeks,” Grimsrud said. “There is the AHS mental health line 1-877-303-2642 or Health Links at 811.”

A walk-in counselling centre has also been set up at Syncrude Sports and Wellness Centre in Fort McMurray and a Health in Tough Times website has been launched.

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WATCH: While preparations continue to get Fort McMurray evacuees back home, not everyone will be able to return as early as planned. Tests have revealed that there are chemicals in the ash, the soil and the air. As Shallima Maharaj explains, that’s prompting caution from officials.

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire: Hundreds of undamaged homes not safe to live in, Alberta government reveals' Fort McMurray wildfire: Hundreds of undamaged homes not safe to live in, Alberta government reveals
Fort McMurray wildfire: Hundreds of undamaged homes not safe to live in, Alberta government reveals – May 30, 2016

*EDITOR’S NOTE: In a news conference Tuesday, the AEMA said Zone 4a would be allowed re-entry on Saturday, June 4. It was later clarified that date was Friday, June 3.

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