As many as 2,000 Fort McMurray residents whose homes weren’t damaged by fire won’t be allowed to move back this week after tests showed unsafe toxic levels in three neighbourhoods.
“There’s contaminants there,” Alberta Health Services’ Dr. Karen Grimsrud said.
Tests revealed the presence of chemicals in the ash, soil and air in the communities of Abasand, Waterways and Beacon Hill.
She said between 1,500 and 2,000 people – 567 homes and 12 apartment complexes – won’t be able to return home permanently this week. No one living in those three neighbourhoods can stay and Notley said residents there are being told they need to find alternative accommodations “essentially for the rest of the summer.”
“We’re asking them to leave the area until we can get the area successfully remediated,” she added.
Grimsrud said some of the soil, ash and air tests showed the presence of harmful chemicals, including arsenic. Crews are putting a protective spray – a “non-toxic tackifier” – on burned buildings to prevent the further spread of ash. Residents will be contacted by the municipality when the clean-up is scheduled to take place in their area.
“These results and the high concentrations are not unexpected,” she said. “But it’s critical we take steps to protect citizens.”
Residents were originally told they would still be able to visit their home as long as the building was structurally sound and they were accompanied by an official and wore protective clothing.
However, late Monday night, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo issued a statement saying all residents of the “re-entry Zone 4b communities of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are not permitted to access their homes on the scheduled re-entry date of June 4.”
The statement said plans were still being made to allow for residents to access structurally-sound homes in those communities but a timeline was not given.
“We appreciate how difficult this may be for some of you, and thank you for your continued patience and resiliency as we work through this process,” the statement said.
Officials said the majority of the material is considered Class 2, which can be safely disposed of in a landfill.
“Despite this unwelcome news, we remain on track for voluntary, phased re-entry of the vast majority of Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities,” the premier said.
Scott Long, executive director with Alberta Emergency Management Agency, would not give a timeline for the materials clean-up.
“There’s not set time, but everybody wants to have folks back in and schools open by September,” he said.
Homes that have been destroyed by the fire will be fenced off. If you have a fire-proof safe or other fire-proof belongings, you can make arrangements with the municipality to pick them up.
“I will be blunt: if you are going in to look for a ring or a wedding dress, it is not there,” Long said. “It is consumed. There was a lot of heat here. But if you’ve got specific pieces like a vault, a document safe or something along those lines that are fire retardant, the regional municipality on a case-by-case basis will coordinate that.
“It will not happen on the date of re-entry. It could take a period of time.”
The province’s announcement comes as some people were raising concerns about the safety of the community, given the amount of smoke that’s been there and the type of materials that have burned.
“The smoke itself is toxic by its very nature,” Gareth Norris, a former firefighter, said. “Then you add a structure fire into that, so you’re dealing with plastics that burned, all kinds of carcinogenics – all the different materials in a home – that’s in the smoke. That’s what’s gotten into people’s homes and that’s what’s coated the walls, the soft goods, everything.”
Norris was a firefighter in Fort McMurray for 17 years before he retired and now owns several businesses in the community. He is scheduled to head into Fort McMurray on Thursday, but will not be bringing his kids or his dog. He and his partner will assess the damage to his home and businesses, but said his kids will not return until at least the boil water advisory is lifted.
He praises the work being done by emergency crews but questions moving people back so quickly after the fire.
Officials said Monday the air quality level was between Levels 1 and 2 but could change at any moment. Grimsrud said it was being monitored on a daily basis.
“If they deem that we need something for protection then they should be a little bit more specific on to what level and why and then give people the proper information,” Norris said. “People are panicking because you have to bring this mask. Does that mean I can’t breathe the air? Is it just precautionary?”
The Red Cross announced Monday there was another $40 million for relief efforts. That sum was in addition to the $50 million already announced.
A Red Cross spokeswoman said $15 million will be used to help transport evacuees back to Fort McMurray if they don’t have financial supports from their employer or insurance to get back home. Charter buses will be based in Edmonton, Calgary and Lac La Biche and flights will be arranged into those centres for evacuees staying outside Alberta.
The organization said $20 million will be given to evacuees via e-transfer. Each head of household will get $300 plus $50 for each additional member.
“Thanks to the generosity of Canadians, I am pleased to announce that we are able to provide additional emergency financial assistance to households after re-entry, to help people meet their immediate needs,” Jenn McManus, vice president of Alberta operations for the Canadian Red Cross, said.
Notley said Alberta has created a method by which to get financial assistance to evacuees who are currently out of province. Between June 1 and 15, out-of-province evacuees will be contacted by email. They’ll be able to pick up pre-loaded cards at one of hundreds of federal or provincial buildings across Canada.
Those people who are planning to return to Fort McMurray this week – whether temporarily or permanently – will be given clean-up and after-fire kits, including things like masks and information pamphlets.
Eight information centres will also be set up inside the city.
“These information centres will give you a ton of good information,” Mayor Melissa Blake said. She said they’d also include resources people might not have thought they’d need.
The province released a re-entry information booklet to help residents plan for a safe return to Fort McMurray.
With limited services available in the city, returning residents are asked to bring basic necessities to last for up to 14 days, including food, drinking water and prescriptions.
“This re-entry plan is voluntary,” Notley said. “We anticipate that many people will not return as early as June 1 and we will support them in that decision.”
Those who live in the least-damaged areas of the region will be allowed to return home first. Houses and properties that have been severely damaged will be fenced off.
The region said a number of hotels were open and accepting bookings beginning June 1.
The first group of Fort McMurray residents will be allowed home Wednesday, one month after more than 80,000 people were forced from their homes by a massive, unpredictable wildfire.
As of Monday at 10 a.m. MT, the 579,946-hectare blaze was still burning out of control. There are currently 1,700 firefighters battling the blaze, including nearly 300 from South Africa, almost 200 from the United States and more than 300 from other parts of Canada were battling it.
Notley said, at the request of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a state of local emergency will remain in effect until the end of June.
The boil water advisory will also remain in effect until the end of June.
With files from Emily Mertz, Global News