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Residents excited to come home as evacuation order, alerts lifted in northeastern Alberta

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Meredith Stanfield hoped she would be allowed into her neighbourhood Saturday morning to pick up a phone charger and a few days’ worth of cat litter for her three pet felines.

Stanfield lives in Prairie Creek, one of four neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, Alta., that was affected by an evacuation order due to a nearby wildfire. She was among thousands of 6,600 residents forced to flee on Tuesday.

When she reached the perimeter, a law enforcement official informed her she could return home permanently.

“I’m really excited now,” said Stanfield, who has been staying at the Pomeroy Hotel in Fort McMurray since the order was issued Tuesday.

“I can’t wait to turn around, go get all my stuff and my cats and go home.”

An older woman with brown hair and glasses is smiling. She is behind the wheel of a vehicle, talking to someone with her window down. It's raining outside.
Meredith Stanfield, a Fort McMurray, Alta., resident forced to evacuate due to a nearby wildfire, was happily surprised to learn she could return home on Saturday. (CBC)

A wildfire, burning about 5.5 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray, has grown to about 19,500 hectares since it ignited on May 9.

The fire sparked an evacuation alert over a week ago, affecting Anzac, Draper, Fort McMurray, Fort McMurray First Nation, Gregoire Lake, Saprae Creek estates and Rickards Landing Industrial Park. The alert meant people had to prepare to leave on short notice, but some residents, with memories of the 2016 wildfire, left pre-emptively.

On Tuesday, the regional municipality issued a local state of emergency. An evacuation order issued that day for four Fort McMurray neighbourhoods — Prairie Creek, Beacon Hill, Abasand and Grayling Terrace — forced about 6,600 people to flee their homes.

The fire is still deemed out of control. But on Saturday morning, emergency and government officials expressed gratitude for firefighters and recent — and forecasted — weather, which stymied the local fire risk enough to lift all emergency alerts.

“If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the fire chief dancing in the rain, you missed your opportunity early this morning,” said regional fire Chief Jody Butz during Saturday’s wildfire update.

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

Recent rainfall and cool temperatures 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.

About 20 millimetres of rain has recently fallen on the wildfire, including about 10 millimetres Friday, leading to lower fire activity Saturday, said Josee St-Onge, an Alberta Wildfire public information officer.

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.

During Saturday’s wildfire update, Mayor Sandy Bowman beamed as he declared the situation was safe enough for all citizens to return home.

A white man, with short gray hair and a thick gray beard, is wearing a black zip-up sweater over a striped polo shirt. He is speaking at a podium, into a microphone. Behind him, to his right, is a blonde white woman. To his left, is a white man, with short dark hair.
Mayor Sandy Bowman announced Saturday morning that all emergency alerts for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo were being lifted. (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo)

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

Lindsay Paddick, with her children and two pets in the vehicle, is among those excited to return home.

She and her family, who live in Beacon Hill, spent the past several days camping in Wandering River — roughly 180 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. They were en route to Fort McMurray Saturday to shower and pick up clean clothes, when they heard on the radio that the evacuation order was lifted.

“The timing was just perfect,” she said.

A woman in a red coat is sitting in the driver seat of a vehicle, with the window down. She is smiling while speaking to reporters, holding out microphones.
Lindsay Paddick, who lives in Beacon Hill in Fort McMurray, Alta., was among the many residents excited to return home Saturday. (CBC)

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 municipality.

Plans are in place to bring those evacuees home, Bowman said, adding that emergency social services and supports will be available to them until noon Sunday.

Not yet out of the woods

Officials were cautious not to get carried away by Saturday’s uplifting mood, however.

The wildfire is still not extinguished, Bowman said, warning that the local fire situation could change through the summer.

A fire ban for the area is still in effect.

In its news release, 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.

“We need to give them the room they need,” Chief Butz said.

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.

There are 48 total active wildfires burning in Alberta as of 3 p.m. MT Saturday, including seven mutual aid fires, according to Alberta Wildfire. The mutual aid designation means Alberta Wildfire is helping with the firefighting response, but it is not the lead agency.

The fire near Fort McMurray is the only one still deemed out of control, but an evacuation alert for the county of Grande Prairie is still in effect due to fire in the area.

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