It’s a long road back to normalcy, but Fort McMurray is off to a good start.
That was the message from officials Wednesday afternoon as they thanked service providers and citizens for beginning the re-entry process smoothly.
Premier Rachel Notley said an estimated 7,500 people had returned to the city by 1 p.m., with no traffic disruptions or issues reported. Up to 15,000 are eligible to return to the region on day one.
“Today begins a journey more than a month in the making,” Notley said. “The journey home to Fort McMurray.”
The premier publicly thanked the first responders and firefighters who worked to save 90% of the region’s structures from the wildfire, dubbed “The Beast” by many. She said the firefighters who had set up giant flags on the King St. bridge over Highway 63 said “welcome home more powerfully than any words could.”
Emergency Management Director for the RMWB Bob Couture said services were working together to ensure a seamless experience.
“Everything has been orderly and everything is going as planned,” he said. “It has been a huge success so far and we want to continue that today.”
Couture said that up to 15,000 were eligible to return to the lower townsite, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, and Fort McMurray 468 First Nation today. Thursday the town will be welcoming back Timberlea, Stone Creek, Parsons Creek, Eagle Ridge, and Dickinsfield, areas that combined represent over 47% of Fort McMurray’s population.
However the RMWB is only expecting between 40-50% of the population to return, as they assess their properties or return to work. Families with young children are expected to stay back due to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Karen Grimsrud’s recommendation that children under seven wait in case air quality worsens. Those with chronic illnesses, who need frequent medical care, or who are more than 36 weeks pregnant are also recommended to stay back until the hospital is fully functional on June 21.
Notley, Mayor Melissa Blake, and Couture all thanked the work of public- and private-sector workers who have been preparing the city for re-entry. The RMWB said Wednesday morning that excluding contractors, 4,438 workers were on the ground in Fort McMurray with more expected to arrive. NGOs also have nearly 200 staff in the city to assist.
Political leaders were also helping out, with city councillors setting up at welcome centres to assist staff and volunteers with the distribution of water. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao set up food and water outside of their constituency office on Franklin Avenue.
“We are proud of our people,” Jean said. “Welcome home.”