BONNYVILLE, Alberta Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday saw the devastation caused by a wildfire that blazed through the Alberta town of Fort McMurray and forced several oil sands operations to shut.
The inferno is the first natural disaster to confront Trudeau, whose Liberals took power in November. He promises the federal government will do everything it can to help in a rebuilding effort likely to take years.
Trudeau toured the town in a military helicopter and saw a patchwork of devastated neighborhoods. Some homes still stood, while others had burned to their foundations.
He flew over the mostly intact downtown, as well as the town’s hospital, which firefighters saved in a furious battle against the spreading fire.
“The people of Fort McMurray have been through so much and are still standing strong,” Trudeau said via Twitter.
After his aerial tour, Trudeau was briefed on progress fighting the fire, which has moved east of Fort McMurray into less inhabited areas, and thanked emergency officials.
Earlier, Trudeau met Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen at the airport in the provincial capital Edmonton. Trudeau told Allen he wanted to gain knowledge that could be applied to manage future fires.
Trudeau has faced criticism in Alberta, a province that does not usually vote for his party, for waiting more than a week to survey the damage. The prime minister has said he did not want his visit to interfere with firefighting efforts.
“I think it’s a good thing he’s coming,” said Fort McMurray housekeeper Maureen Pearce at a supply center for evacuees in Lac La Biche, Alberta. “I hope he provides more aid.”
Trudeau will hold a news conference with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at 5:15 p.m. in Edmonton.
Many of the 88,000 people who were evacuated hurriedly as the town caught fire are living in temporary accommodation across the province, while authorities work to restore power, gas, water and communications.
Local officials say it will be 10 days before they can even produce a plan for resettlement, much less allow people to return to a place where small fires are still erupting.
CHALLENGES OF REBUILDING
The prime minister’s visit is important to show him first-hand how daunting a challenge rebuilding will be, said Melissa Blake, the mayor of the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray.
Evacuees are collecting this week Alberta debit cards loaded with C$1,250 ($966) per adult and C$500 per dependent, as well as Canadian Red Cross aid of C$600 for each adult and C$300 for each child.
Pearce, who believes both her Fort McMurray home and the hotel where she works survived the fire, said the emergency funds are helpful. “But if we’re going to be out of our homes for a month, we’ll need more.”
The wildfire knocked out nearly half, or 1.07 million barrels per day (bpd), of Alberta’s oil sands capacity. The effort to restart projects is progressing slowly.
A spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator said it had four staff in the Fort McMurray region and more traveling there on Friday. They will visit oil sands sites and help operators safely move toward restarting production.
The fire on Friday was 12 km (7.5 miles) from ConocoPhillips’ Surmont oil sands site, which is 63 km (39 miles) southeast of Fort McMurray, and it had not advanced since Thursday morning, spokesman Rob Evans said. He said operations will be on hold until the Alberta government allows people to stay overnight at Surmont’s camp.
The wildfire is a blow to Alberta’s economy, which was already reeling from collapsing oil prices. But even so, portfolio managers see value in Alberta’s government bonds, anticipating the province will rebound.
Four major oil firms operating in the area around Fort McMurray have declared force majeure, a contract clause to remove liability for unavoidable catastrophes.
The fire spans 241,000 hectares (596,000 acres), growing much more slowly than before.
(With additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary and Liz Hampton in Houston; Writing by David Ljunggren and Rod Nickel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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