FORT MCMURRAY — Canada’s Prime Minister arrived in wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray on Friday and after taking a helicopter tour to assess the damage said he doesn’t think most Canadians comprehend yet the scope of what happened in the oil sands capital, where more than 88,000 people were forced to evacuate.
Just Trudeau arrived in the northern Alberta city almost two weeks after a massive wildfire ignited, tearing through the isolated region and surrounding areas, causing several oil sands operations to shut down. Alberta officials say they will have a plan within two weeks for getting residents back into their homes.
Trudeau said that despite following updates and watching images on TV, the scale and the disaster didn’t hit him until he visited the area.
“I don’t think Canadians yet understand what happened. They know there was a fire. They’re beginning to hear the wonderful news that so much of the town was saved,” he told 150 firefighters and first responders after his aerial tour by military helicopter of Fort McMurray.
“But they don’t yet understand that that wasn’t a fluke of wind or rain or luck that happened. This was the extraordinary response by people such as yourself. The work you did to save so much of this community, to save so much of this city and its downtown core . . . was unbelievable.”
Trudeau was to tour one of the city’s damaged neighbourhoods after his visit with first responders and volunteers. He planned to meet with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley later in the day.
Trudeau took a helicopter ride over a patchwork of devastated neighbourhoods, where some homes still stand while others have been burned to their foundations. Alberta officials say 2,432 structures have been destroyed, 530 damaged and 25,000 saved. Despite the savage fire, officials said 85-90 percent of the city has been saved.
In the forest surrounding the Fort McMurray airport, where Trudeau landed, trees looked like little more than used match sticks, charred right up to the tarmac, and the ground was blackened.
“I heard there were situations and peculiarities in this fire that give us pause for reflection on how we move forward,” Trudeau told Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen, who led the fight against the fierce fire. “I’m very, very interested in not just what we manage to do to get through this one, but what we can do around minimizing the impacts of the next one — because it will come.”
Allen said having the prime minister visit is a morale boost.
“Right now the residents aren’t there, but there are hundreds and hundreds of emergency workers. I think they’ll get a lift from that,” he said.
Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, accompanied Trudeau, saying it was critical for him to tour the burned neighbourhoods.
“Once you see it, you know not just how daunting the work will be, but how important it is to make it back to what it was before,” she said.
Trudeau was also accompanied by Notley and some federal cabinet ministers, who are part of a special committee that will coordinate aid and reconstruction efforts in the city.
Alberta Member of Parliament Kent Hehr, who heads the special committee, said it’s important to show people that the federal government will be there for them in the reconstruction.
“It’s very difficult for me as an Albertan,” said Hehr, who represents a Calgary district.
More than 80,000 residents had to evacuate their homes May 3 as the flames carved a destructive path through the city.
The fire is now 930 square miles in size and has moved away from the city. It’s expected to burn in forested areas for at least a few more weeks.
The more than 80,000 evacuees have begun receiving direct financial assistance from the Alberta government and the Canadian Red Cross as officials asked for patience in getting residents home.
Canadian Red Cross chief executive Conrad Sauve has said that each adult will receive $600 Canadian (US$467) and each child will get $300 Canadian (US$234) in what he called the most important and fastest direct cash transfer in the organization’s history. It totals $50 million Canadian (US$39 million).
That’s in addition to the $1,250 Canadian (US$973) per adult and $500 Canadian (US$390) per dependent from the government.