Premier Rachel Notley is praising residents of Fort McMurray for their courage, but is warning them rebuilding their community will be the work of years, not months.
“You have shown tremendous courage under the most difficult of circumstances, and you will need every ounce of that courage in the days to come because the road ahead is still a long one. Today is not the end of the story, it is not a return to normal life, and it is not yet a celebration. There is is still a lot of work to recover and rebuild Wood Buffalo. This will be the work of years, not weeks.”
Notley addressed reporters from Fire Hall 5 in Fort McMurray Wednesday afternoon. She praised first responders for their tireless work that saved over 90 per cent of the town, and promised the province would be there as the rebuild continued.
LISTEN: Officials address the media as residents return to Fort McMurray
The province’s presence since the wildfires started has been a heavy one and the support was acknowledged Wednesday by Mayor Melissa Blake.
“The government has supported us incredibly through this, and I’m told they’re not about to drop us now,” she said. “They’re very prepared to continue supporting our community as we go through that critical rebuilding period.”
— Rachel Notley (@RachelNotley) June 1, 2016
It was a different atmosphere at the news conference on Wednesday. Rather than grim updates about the fire growing and people not being able to come home, officials celebrated the return. Blake warned residents that seeing the damage will be a shock, but people need to remember what’s important.
“I’m asking my citizens to remember, when you took your leave remember all that mattered, all that mattered is what was in your transport,” she said. “If you were in a car, if you were in a bus, if you were with the people you loved, the only thing any of us cared about were those people.”
A steady stream of traffic could be seen moving into Fort McMurray as early as 6:00 a.m, as thousands of people who fled the devastating wildfire in early May are finally allowed back into the community. RCMP lifted the barricades into the city a little earlier than the announced 8:00 a.m. start time.
— 630CHED (@630CHED) June 1, 2016
“I think they realized that because there isn’t this rush of vehicles coming into the city, why not let people in now as they’re approaching,” says 630 CHED’s Brad Wisker, who’s in the city for the return. “So, it seems to be a smooth process.”
Billboards reading “Safe Resilient Together” and “We are here. We are strong” greet people as they arrive
“It fills my heart,” Blake said about the billboards. “Each time I’ve been back to the community I’ve tried to cultivate and make that grow. As we think about what we’re about to do, we’ve got an incredible community at the foundation.”
One of the returning residents is Christein Vermeire. She told 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen it was a relief to be home, but driving into a very different landscape than she was used to was tough.
“Every time we’d go somewhere on vacation and then we’d drive into the city you would come in and you would have the trees, and you would see the city lights,” she said. “Now when coming back and instead of seeing green, just seeing the trees all dark and that’s very different to drive into the city today.”
Vermeire knew her home on Fontaine Crescent was fine because of a security camera she has set up, but says she still felt immense relief when she walked through the door.
“I can’t really describe the feeling,” she said. “It felt so good to walk into my home, run into my room, and just be home again. To feel safe in your own place where you can be yourself, it was so comforting.”
WATCH: 630 CHED’s Brad Wisker takes a tour of Christein Vermeire’s home Wood Buffalo officials are expecting around 15,000 evacuees will return to the city Wednesday as the staged re-enty begins. The wildfire destroyed 2,400 structures, or nearly 10 per cent of the city.
Some of the hardest hit areas remain off-limits, such as Beacon Hill.
“If you were to try to turn into Beacon Hill, there are government officials and police officers parked there, and no access,” said Wisker. “So people that think they might be able to slip by, or sneak through, that’s not going to happen.”
Speaking on the 630CHED Afternoon News, Wildrose Leader and Fort McMurray-Conklin MLA Brian Jean says he’s been staying on top of all the efforts in the community.
“I would like to thank the premier and her government for allowing me to have full access to the community and to communication and to reports and briefs from the government officials so I can keep my constituents fully informed of what’s going on,” said Jean.
Jean says it looks like all levels of government have been working together.
Wood Buffalo acting director of economic development Keith Smith says the community has had a team in place to help local businesses recover.
“On May 25th we brought our Economic Recovery Plan to council — it got approved. It has three phases: what we’re going to do in the immediate, short term, and long term. In the immediate we set up a hot line recovery in which businesses can call in, give us their concerns, get resources. We’ve also set up a business recovery centre downtown at Harden in which businesses can come in, see resources, talk to people and get help, and actually get some space to do work if need be,” said Smith.
The Economic Recovery Plan hotline phone number is 1-855-769-2249.
With residents moving back into the city, appliances are going to need to be reignited after water, gas, and electricity was shut off for nearly a month.
Senior manager with ATCO Gas Chance Herring says the gas is all hooked up and they didn’t find anything surprising when his teams made the first rounds.
“We found some damage to a lot of our infrastructure through the course of the fire, which was to be expected for the most part, but we’re making the necessary repairs to ensure that everything is safe and ready to go so that when people come home we can get them up and running,” said Herring.
Herring says they got all of the work done safely and that’s all that matters.
WATCH: Eerie footage of the most damaged areas in Fort McMurray There is gas available in the city, and grocery stores have some supplies. Jim Cochrane, the Director of Operations for Northern Alberta Safeways, tells 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen that they had crews up there as early as last Tuesday.
“As you can imagine, we spent the first days disposing of all the distressed (food) that we had in the store,” explains Cochrane. “If you had come in the store last Saturday, we had nothing really in the facility. But, everybody powered through on Saturday and got our primary orders in place, and got everything stocked.”
Cochrane adds they asked Alberta Health Services to come in and make sure all their goods were up to code.
“We had a voluntary inspection that we asked for with AHS, they came in with their inspector and gave us guidance on what we should do going forward,” says Cochrane. “So, we adhered to all of those expectations, took everything out of the store that AHS asked us to, and even more items on top of that just to make sure that we were 100 percent compliant. And (also) that everything we had to offer our customers would be new and fresh and in good condition.”
— 630CHED (@630CHED) June 1, 2016
Evacuees were told to make sure they have enough goods to be self-sufficient for up to two weeks. But, Cochrane says he’s confident that they will be able to supply residents with everything they need if they run out.
Cochrane adds that their gas bar and Starbucks are also open, and jokes that the latter has been “an unqualified hit” with first responders.
Meanwhile, the head of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank says its hard for their clients returning home to have stocked up two weeks of food supplies.
Executive Director Arianna Johnson says they feel badly that they are not able to help them out immediately, as they throw food damaged by smoke from the fire.
“It’s hard on my staff because they work so hard to make sure we can provide a really nutritious hamper, well-balanced with enough food to get people through. As they are throwing this (damaged food) out, the question is constantly – How are we going to replace this?”
She says their clients are the most vulnerable in the community.
“They can’t afford to not come home, but they also can’t afford to come home with two weeks worth of food. And they can’t afford to go to the grocery store once they get here.”
She hopes the Wood Buffalo Food Bank will re-open for clients next Monday, June 6th.
Home Hardware in Fort McMurray is also ready to help them get things back to normal.
Rob Rice, owner of the Home Hardware, says they have a pretty good stock right now and if anything isn’t in stock, they’ll get it.
“We can order stuff, we can special order it, and we can arrange a truck to be here days upon days,” explains Rice. “We’ll just keep bringing them in.”
Rice says they are open from 7:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. and if things are needed after hours, they may be able to help.
“We’ve had probably about six or seven truckloads of materials rolling in,” explains Rice. “Within the last three or four days we’ve been trying to stock up.”
He says they are working hard to make sure residents can get what they need.
“The thing is, you don’t know how much to get and what people need and what they are looking for, you know, things like that,” explains Rice. “We’re also trying to get the best price and help people out and show some generosity that’s been so good to us, it’s our home right.”
(scb, CP, bw, kdr, twd, kb, km, djs)