Some 80,000 Fort McMurray evacuees are being asked to brace for a long wait as devastating wildfires continue to wreak havoc in a hot and dry Alberta.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and other provincial officials said they didn't know when it would be safe for people to return to their homes. Instead, the government officials are exploring a plan to provide longer-term housing and assistance to the tens of thousands of residents that escaped the disaster.
“As you all know, our province is facing one of the most significant challenges in its history," Notley said at an evening news conference on Thursday. "Every available resource in Alberta has been deployed to combat the wildfire and effect a safe and orderly evacuation."
The entire city of Fort McMurray was placed under an evacuation order on Tuesday as a raging wildfire jumped across highways and rivers, attacking buildings in the northern Alberta city that is known for being at the heart of the province's oil sands industry.
Unseasonably warm and dry temperatures, combined with fierce winds, were fueling the wildfire's rapid growth. It continued this expansion on Thursday, although at a slower pace, as the province remained in a state of emergency.
Firefighters have attempted to protect Fort McMurray's critical infrastructure, but more than a thousand homes and other buildings have reportedly been damaged by the aggressive fire.
“It is apparent that the damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents at this time,” Notley said.
Notley added that even after the immediate threat passes, local officials would still need time to assess the damage to infrastructure to ensure that people will be able to live there once again.
“As we are still in the response phase of this emergency, it is simply not possible, nor is it responsible to speculate on a time that citizens will be able to return,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do know that it will not be a matter of days.”
She added that evacuation centres in other parts of the province had deep resources to help the Fort McMurray population, but that a longer term housing solution would be introduced by early next week for those that needed it.
She said that all residents would have to register with provincial emergency officials to help them prepare the plan.
“I know this experience is heartbreaking,” Notley said. “People are tired and scared about future.”