EDMONTON – At 7 p.m. on Monday night, thousands of Fort McMurray evacuees will receive a phone call.
The voice they’ll hear will invite them to participate in a massive telephone town hall, where for an hour-and-a-half they’ll get to hear the latest information and ask questions about the wildfire that forced them from their homes, as well as the condition of their neighbourhoods, financial assistance and predictions for when they’ll be allowed to return to their city.
The Alberta government says over 15,000 took part in the first town hall session that was held last Monday night and the numbers have continued to remain high as more were held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“We set up these telephone town halls in order to provide you with as much information as we can in an unfiltered way,” Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said at the beginning of the first session a week ago.
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There are other ways the province is helping evacuees to get a sense of what they’ll be coming home to.
The Alberta government has released an app with maps that are intended to provide a high-level satellite overview of the status of the city following the devastating fires, and daily updates are posted on the web.
In announcing the app, Larivee said that having been through a devastating fire and evacuation herself five years ago in Slave Lake, she knows how stressful it can be to wait for updates on which homes have been lost.
The town hall sessions have the feel of a news conference, but instead of reporters asking the questions, it’s the residents of Fort McMurray.
To get the invitation call for the town halls, evacuees must have registered their phone numbers with the Red Cross, but they can also participate by phoning in themselves or listening in online.
One caller on Thursday night said her home was very close to the fire line and worried that if it had water damage, it might cause more problems if officials turn the electricity back on.
Another caller said he’d heard reports on social media that there had been looting in Fort McMurray.
“I’m just curious about what steps you’re taking to secure everyone’s homes?” the caller, identified as Grant, asked.
There was even a poll during the town hall asking whether people had been to one of the province’s debit card distribution centres yet, and participants were able to respond on their phone keypads.
John Archer, a government spokesman, said the town halls were put together because even though there were numerous daily news conference and government updates, it didn’t seem to be enough.
“There would continue to be comments from the evacuees: ‘We just want more information. We want more information. We wish we had more information,'” Archer said.
Archer said there may be more telephone town halls as the week continues.
The question that’s on every evacuees’ mind was submitted online by woman identified as Grace during Thursday’s town hall.
She wondered if evacuees will get to go home this month.
“No promises on that one,” Larivee answered. “We will let you know as soon as possible.”