The residence of Fort McMurray — 80,000 people who have fled a raging wildfire — now face a long wait before they can return to their homes and resume anything close to normal lives.
That was the grim news delivered Thursday evening by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who warned residents it will take many days before their city is safe to live in again.
Notley refused to speculate about how long the wait might be.
“Unfortunately, we do know that it won’t be a matter of days,” she said.
With thousands of people now staying in evacuation centres, or with friends or relatives, the government is working on a plan to find “transitional housing” for families who lost everything when the wildfire swept away entire streets.
On Thursday, about 4,000 evacuees stranded north of Fort McMurray were flown to Calgary or Edmonton from runways at two oilsands camps, where many have been staying.
On Friday morning, other residents are expected to be allowed to drive in RCMP-led convoys down Highway 63 and straight through their city, past the ruins of neighbourhoods where more than 1,600 homes and buildings have burned.
Once safely south of the city, the cars and trucks will head south toward evacuation centres or other accommodations.
Fire officials do not yet know what started this massive wildfire, but said Thursday they now know the only force powerful enough to stop it will be a significant change in the weather.
‘We still have a long way to go’
Supercharged by winds, the wildfire ballooned from 10,000 hectares on Wednesday evening to about 85,000 hectares by dawn Thursday.
By day’s end Thursday, the fire’s progress had slowed significantly, and officials continued to estimate its size at 85,000 hectares.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison. “We still have a long way to go.”
The main body of the fire, now south of the city, is expected to continue to burn out of control, perhaps for many days to come.
More than 100 firefighters and 10 helicopters and 16 air tankers continue to fight the wildfire, with more resources on the way.