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Alberta’s Premier Heads to Fort McMurray as Fire's Growth Slows

At least 1,600 structures, mostly homes, have been destroyed, but huge swaths of the city remain intact since people were forced out of Fort McMurray because of wildfires that continue to rage.

by Rachel Browne
May 9 2016, 3:10pm

Alberta premier Rachel Notley will visit Fort McMurray on Monday for the first time since it was evacuated after relentless wildfires decimated parts of the city and forced its 80,000 residents to flee across the province. The visit comes as cooler weather provided a sliver of hope for the army of firefighters and helicopters battling the so-called "beast" fires.

Notley, along with the city's mayor and members of the media, will have a police-guided tour to assess the damage and provide an official count of the number of destroyed structures. An estimated 1,600 structures, mostly homes, have been destroyed, but huge swaths of the city remain intact. During a media tour, Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen estimated that 85 percent of the structures remain "perfectly" in tact.

Since last week, only essential frontline workers have been allowed in, while everyone else is held at a police checkpoint several miles outside the city limits.

There's already 250 employees from ATCO, a major gas and electricity corporation, in the city surveying damage to the power grid and other infrastructure. After today, the government is expected to begin making plans for people to go home, but there's no indication as to when that will happen. There's still an ongoing investigation into the cause of the fire.

Related: A Ride Into the Ashes of Fort McMurray

Notley warned residents in a press conference Sunday to prepare for the many images and stories to come from the damaged city, and that mental health supports will be offered to anyone who needs them.

"It's too early to speculate on the extent and the nature of the damage," Notley continued. "You can walk by a building, it looks like it's standing, then you go and you discover that there has been damage to it."

Over the weekend, the weather cooled and there was a bit of rain, though nowhere near what's needed to choke the dozens of wildfires across the province's north.

Chad Morrison, the province's wildfire manager, said this stunted the fire's growth to less than the 200,000 hectares that had expected over the weekend — it remains at an estimated 160,000 hectares — but that any dry weather conditions over the next couple of weeks could exacerbate it again. This weekend, a number of oil industry operations, including Suncor, Husky, and Shell, were halted and more than 1,500 employees were evacuated as a precaution.

"We could expect to see some growth in that far, far, far eastern sides here," Morrison said. "But again, that's away from the communities and we still have a lot of work in front of us — especially in those forested areas."

Related: The Fort McMurray Fire Created Lightning That Set Off New Blazes

Canada's federal public safety minister Ralph Goodale visited an evacuation in Edmonton on Sunday and said that wildfire have also erupted across the country due to dry weather.

"This is potentially a very long and difficult problem, not just for Albertans but for all Canadians this summer," he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined various offers for international help, including from Russia, the US, Mexico, Australia, Taiwan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"The good news is from the support that we have seen from Canadians across the country, different provinces sending over waterbombers, engaged in all sorts of different ways, firefighters coming from all across the country to help, there is no need to accept any international assistance at this point," he said on Monday.

More than 25,000 people who fled to areas north of Fort McMurray have been evacuated south of the province. Notley has acknowledged that having residents live in evacuation centres and with friends and family is not a long-term solution. Last week, she said that the province's affordable housing agency was assessing its vacancies that could be used to house evacuees. Universities are expected to open their vacant dormitories as well.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne