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Wildfire evacuation order, alerts lifted for Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

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Thousands of people who fled their communities due to a wildfire in northeastern Alberta are being allowed to return home, as all emergency alerts have been lifted, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Sandy Bowman announced Saturday.

A large wildfire burning near Fort McMurray, which is still deemed out of control, triggered the municipality to issue an evacuation alert more than a week ago. Then, on Tuesday, about 6,600 Fort McMurray residents were forced to leave when an evacuation order was issued for four neighbourhoods: Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace.

Rain and cool temperatures have lowered the fire risk, and firefighting and community protection efforts have made the situation safe enough for people to return, Bowman said.

“I am pleased to announce it is now safe for us to end the current evacuation and allow people to return to their homes,” Bowman said.

“We will be very pleased to see you and we will thank you for your resolve, patience and strength,” he said, addressing residents who evacuated. “Welcome back — and please travel safely.”

The fire, which ignited on May 9, covers roughly 19,500 hectares, Alberta Wildfire estimates, but its growth appears to have been stymied for several days. It is burning about 5.5 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray and 4.5 kilometres west of Highways 63 and 881.

About 10 millimetres of rain fell on the fire Friday, leading to lower fire activity Saturday, said Josee St-Onge, an Alberta Wildfire public information officer, during Saturday’s wildfire update. More rain is in the forecast.

As of Thursday, nearly 2,600 evacuees and 380 pets were registered at reception centres in Lac La Biche, Cold Lake and Edmonton, according to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. 

Many other residents left voluntarily when the evacuation alert — which means people need to be prepared to leave on short notice — was first issued, in case there was a repeat of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.

That alert —  which affected Anzac, Draper, Fort McMurray, Fort McMurray First Nation, Gregoire Lake and Saprae Creek estates and Rickards Landing Industrial Park — is being lifted, too, Bowman said, so the residents who left pre-emptively can return.

A state of local emergency declared last Tuesday is also ending, he said.

Emergency social services and supports will remain available to people affected by the evacuation order — meaning they were forced to flee — until noon Sunday, Bowman said.

Plans are in place to bring home evacuees who were unable to leave on their own from the evacuation centres in Cold Lake, Edmonton and Lac La Biche, Bowman said.

The mayor noted that the wildfire is still not extinguished, and the fire situation in the area could change through the summer.

Alberta Wildfire and municipal officials decided to lift the evacuation order and alert for several reasons, according to a news release issued by the municipality Saturday.

Recent rainfall calmed the wildfire and firefighters were able to make “significant progress” toward containing the northeast edge. Crews were also able to finish building fire guards in that portion, as well as in Fort McMurray, which will help prevent the fire from encroaching on the community, its landfill and Highway 63 — the city’s main thoroughfare, the release says.

Structure protection is still in place and firefighters finished spraying fire-retardant in the forest areas bordering the neighbourhoods affected by the evacuation order, the release says.

The municipality urged people not to travel into the forest near the wildfire, nor fly drones in the area, because crews are still working on the fire, which could take “many weeks” to bring under control, the release says.

“We need to give them the room they need,” regional fire Chief Jody Butz said during Saturday’s update.

A fire ban for the area is still in effect.

Alberta Forestry and Parks Minister Todd Loewen assured that the provincial government will send whatever resources are necessary to hold this particular wildfire, and, eventually, to get it under control.

“It will take some time … this is a large wildfire; the terrain that it’s in is going to be difficult to work with,” Loewen said Saturday. But thanks to the firefighting efforts, “we’re able to take advantage of this weather change” and return people home.

All schools in Fort McMurray will be open Tuesday, after the long weekend, according to a joint statement from the city’s three school boards.

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