CANADA – Almost five years after a massive wildfire forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alta., the northeastern Alberta oilsands hub is in another state of emergency.
A fire so ferocious it earned the nickname “the beast” spread into the city on May 3, 2016, causing nearly 90,000 people to flee the flames. Residents were out of their homes for at least a month and thousands of buildings were destroyed.
Now, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes the city of Fort McMurray, is dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases that has strained the local hospital.
Mayor Don Scott said Thursday that the community has been dealt challenge after challenge, but has always bounced back.
“We are absolutely, without a doubt the toughest community I have ever seen,” he told a news conference marking the anniversary of the fire.
“I’ve always been deeply proud to represent this region for a lot of reasons, but one is how tough it is.”
Scott said challenges remain five years later, as insurance claims remain unresolved and the mental health toll lingers.
He said he remembers seeing an ominous plume of smoke on the horizon and then a day later passing by an entire hill on fire.
“I think a lot of people in our community remember what was going on and will probably never forget it for the rest of their lives,” he said. “So I don’t think I’m alone in that.”
Auditing firm KPMG reviewed the municipality’s emergency preparedness and response in 2017 and made 14 recommendations, including that it refresh its emergency management plan annually and enhance training.
Fire Chief Jody Butz said all but one recommendation has been implemented: that forest boundaries be realigned. He said there was a disagreement between the city and province on the matter, but that communication has been improving.
“We’ll always live with that threat of wildfire,” Butz said. “However, over the past five years we’ve significantly reduced the threat through our mitigation efforts and ongoing work that protects lives and property.”
On the pandemic front, Fort McMurray is one of the Alberta hot spots subject to tougher COVID-19 restrictions announced Thursday, such as a ban on indoor sports and fitness.
Premier Jason Kenney said curfews would be imposed in regions where case rates are above 1,000 per 100,000 people and the local government requests it.
Fort McMurray’s active case rate is nearly 1,600 per 100,000.
Scott said he’s grateful the province will soon offer vaccine to those aged 30 and older in the region, which has a young population.
Scott said he would also like to see mobile clinics and shots be given at oilsands sites north of the city. A clinic is already planned at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon mine between May 2 and 4, said company spokeswoman Julie Woo.
With so many shift workers in the community, Scott said it’s important vaccines be made convenient.
“Many of the oilsands sites deliver flu shots and they have the capability to deliver vaccines and we think that would make a huge difference.”