EDMONTON – Wildfires that levelled neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray slowed their rampage through tinder dry forest in northern Alberta on Sunday, allowing firefighters in the oilpatch city to focus on hotspots as plans were made for Premier Rachel Notley to survey the damage first-hand.
Notley said the fight against the fire has stabilized to the point where she can visit and begin the next phase of the government’s operation to determine what must be done to eventually allow people to return to the city.
Speaking at a media briefing, Notley had to pause to compose herself when she spoke about Mother’s Day and two evacuees who were killed in a traffic accident last week.
“Our hearts go out to their families. This is Mother’s Day. I am hoping, in all of this crisis, to spend a few minutes today with my own children,” Notley said, pausing as her voice cracked. “That not all of us can do that is definitely an awful tragedy. So today, Mother’s Day, all of us in Alberta are thinking of you who have suffered these loses.”
Emily Ryan, 15, and her stepmother’s nephew, Aaron Hodgson, died in the accident a day after the fire drove 80,000 people from the city.
Notley was scheduled to visit Fort McMurray on Monday. The premier warned residents to brace themselves for the images they will see, reminding them that counselling services are available.
“There will be some dramatic images coming from media over the next couple of days,” she said.
Chad Morrison with Alberta Wildfire said firefighters have held the line against the fire better than they expected in Fort McMurray.
The weather was also changing and below seasonal temperatures will help firefighters who have been battling the blaze since May 1, he said.
The wildfire did not grow to the size that was expected on Saturday, Morrison said. It covered an area of about 1,600 square kilometres on Sunday and was 30 to 40 kilometres from the Saskatchewan-Alberta boundary.
For the first time since the evacuation began, Morrison expressed a note of optimism in the battle.
“For us, this is great firefighting weather. We can really get in there and really get a handle on this fire and really get a death grip on it,” he said.
“For the wildfire stuff, out in the forested area, that’s going to take us a long time to clean up. But I feel very buoyed and happy that we are making great progress, especially in the community.”
Mother’s Day didn’t go unmarked at an event for evacuees in Lac la Biche, about three hours south of Fort McMurray.
Volunteers organized a Mother’s Day Tea complete with cupcakes, pastries and fruit, along with arts and craft supplies for kids. Girls belonging to a local dance troupe provided the entertainment and handed out fresh roses to all the women in the room.
Wanda Banfield said camping in Wandering River wasn’t how she pictured her Mother’s Day. She, her husband and three children — aged 9, 12 and 14 — stopped by the Bold Centre to pick up supplies.
“As long as I’ve got my husband and three kids, that’s all that matters,” she said.
Lisa Applegarth fled the community of Janvier with her partner, nine children and twin, 17-day-old grandchildren.
Mother’s Day has been tough, said Applegarth, who sat outside the centre with a new, donated double-stroller for the twins.
“My kids were sad because they don’t have the things that they made for me and I was kind of like, ‘Well, it’s OK. All mommy needs is your love.’ ”
Notley was also scheduled to meet leaders from the province’s oil industry on Tuesday to discuss the state of their operations and a timeline for restarting them.
Syncrude and Suncor facilities north of Fort McMurray were evacuated but Morrison said the fire did not reach them.
Notley also thanked Canadian National for reacting quickly to get potentially hazardous and flammable rail cars removed from the area.
“That was quick and critical work that save us from any repetition of the tragedy at Lac-Megantic,” she said.
Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale visited an evacuation centre on Sunday in Edmonton.
He told reporters that the dry conditions stretching from Quebec to British Columbia have already led to a number of wildfires early in the season.
“This is potentially a very long and difficult problem, not just for Albertans but for all Canadians this summer,” he said.
And while the situation in Fort McMurray improved Sunday, Goodale cautioned that it still has a tough road ahead.
“Because of the weather in the last few hours and the weather forecast going forward, it would appear that the situation is moderating, perhaps a bit,” he said.
“We may be turning a corner but, quite frankly, it’s too early to celebrate. There’s still a tremendous amount that needs to be done.”
— With files from Lauren Krugel in Lac la Biche, Alta.