Canada faces challenges rebuilding Fort McMurray

  • 11/05/2016
Canada faces challenges rebuilding Fort McMurray

It will be weeks before residents of the Canada city of Fort McMurray are allowed to return home although much of the city remains intact after a massive wildfire.

Authorities are now focused on restoring economic activity in the western province of Alberta, Canada's main oil sands region.

Though the blaze was still spreading in the past few hours and had charred about 230,000 sq kilometres, officials said it was moving to the south and east, away from the area's largest oil production facilities and into sparsely populated areas.

Increasing humidity and lower temperatures are providing some relief for the hundreds of firefighters trying to control the blaze that broke out more than a week ago.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons he would go to Fort McMurray on Friday.

Canada's labour minister told reporters yesterday the federal government would ensure that people put out of work by the blaze receive unemployment payments.

The city was completely evacuated on May 3 when the flames suddenly shifted direction and quickly burned their way into the downtown area.

The more than 80,000 inhabitants were forced to leave their belongings behind in just a few hours to find shelter, while some 200 firefighters stayed behind to keep the flames from destroying hospitals, schools and other essential installations.

Authorities have warned that authorisation for evacuees to return to their homes, or what is left of them, is not likely to be forthcoming for several weeks.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley met yesterday with executives of the oil companies operating in the oil-sand fields north of Fort McMurray, the world's third-largest petroleum reserves.

"While thousands of lives will never be the same, we can take small steps to getting back the rhythm of northeast Alberta," Notley told reporters after the meeting.

"For many in Fort McMurray, that means rolling up the sleeves, and returning to work doing what they love, which is working in the energy sector," she said in Edmonton.

The meeting came a day after Notley led an inspection tour of Fort McMurray, which found that the town was less damaged than initially feared with about 90 percent of its buildings surviving the blaze.

One area remaining under threat was Hangingstone, about 60km south of Fort McMurray.

Notley said she believed facilities at Hangingstone were intact, but the area was not yet accessible due to the fire threat.

The largest-producing oil projects in the Fort McMurray area are about 20km north of the town and not in the fire's current path.

The inspection of Fort McMurray revealed blocks of homes reduced to blackened foundations, front steps and metal barbecues. Notley said 2400 structures had burned within the city while almost 25,000 were saved.

Officials warned it was not safe for residents to return to the town, with parts still smouldering and large areas without power, water and gas. Notley said repair crews will need weeks to make the city safe.