Rachel Notley to evacuees: 'Trust us that we have your backs'

Alberta's Premier turns at least part of her focus to what comes next

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — While fire crews continue to battle the massive blaze that has consumed at least 1,600 homes, businesses and public buildings in the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, the province’s premier is turning at least part of her focus to what comes next.

Premier Rachel Notley says plans are in the works for concrete support for the more than 80,000 evacuees forced out of the community, including financial aid and transitional housing.

At a supper hour news conference on Thursday, Notley said steps are being taken to ensure that people on an income assistance program for the disabled get their money. The provincial cabinet will also look at giving evacuees cash cards.

“I must stress that these are very early days and there is much more to do, and more help will be needed,” she said.

As for those whose homes have been destroyed, she said an assessment is underway to determine what temporary options might be available, including university student housing that should be freed up soon as the school year comes to an end.

She asked all evacuees “whether you’re in the reception centre or you’re staying in your friend’s rec room” to register themselves either online or by phoning the Red Cross, adding it is crucial to the province’s ability to determine what support everyone requires.

Notley praised the federal government for streamlining access for Employment Insurance for those who have lost their jobs as a result of the fire, but added the “scale and complexity of this emergency will require more going forward. We are likely going to need greater flexibility on disaster relief criteria for funding supports.”

Officials said the fire grew in size on Thursday, but at a slower pace and in a forested area away from the city.

The move began to get thousands of evacuees who took shelter at oilfield camps north of Fort McMurray out and to accommodations in Edmonton and Calgary. As many as 8,000 were airlifted out Thursday, with the hope to match that number today.

Related: How big is the fire in Fort McMurray (maps) 

Plans also included a massive convoy effort to escort people who had used their own vehicles to get out of town in Tuesday’s evacuation. It had been contemplated Thursday, but heavy smoke and spots where fire was jumping the road made the attempt too dangerous.

“We didn’t want people overcome as they were going through,” said Scott Long with Alberta Emergency Management.

If conditions are favourable, they will try again at daybreak. Long said Defence Department aircraft would be deployed to do reconnaissance, and if the road is clear, 400 vehicles at a time would be let through with RCMP escorts at the front and the back.

Related: Maclean’s answers FAQs on the Fort McMurray fire 

In preparation, gasoline trucks were being sent in Thursday to fuel up vehicles for the long trip through the city and more than 400 kilometres south to Edmonton.

Notley said officials cannot speculate on when it might be safe for residents to return to Fort McMurray except that “it will not be a matter of days.”

She said even when the fire situation is brought under control, officials will need time to assess buildings and infrastructure so that people can be brought back safely.

“I know this experience is heartbreaking … and a devastating experience for individuals and for the families that are affected,” she said.

“I understand the Albertans that are affected by this tragedy are scared, and very tired, and very worried about their homes and what the future holds for themselves and their families.

“Trust us that we have your backs.”