The first wave of 15,000 evacuees beginning the long road back to Fort McMurray this week were greeted with a warm welcome from firefighters and paramedics and a sequence of six billboards along the highway into town:
“Welcome back./We are here. We are strong./Thank you for being resilient./Together we will rebuild./Safe. Resilient. Together./Thank you for staying safe.”
The billboards were posted by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, “trying to speak directly to our residents. We want them to know we are very proud of them, of how they carried themselves during this crisis,” the town’s press secretary, Robin Smith, told CBC. “When people come into town, we want them to see the strength they have reflected in the community they live in.”
But beyond the shows of solidarity and encouragement, there were signs that the town’s recovery from a devastating wildfire would be slow and treacherous. Days before the first group of evacuees re-entered the Fort Mac, Premier Rachel Notley warned that about 560 homes left undamaged by the flames had been contaminated by ash containing arsenic and other heavy metals.
“I realize this will be difficult news for people to hear who were expecting to return to their homes,” she said. “But as always, safety and health remain our top priority.”
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Karen Grimsrud urged residents to wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and gloves around ash and debris, and keep their children from playing in the ash.
“The ash has a very high pH which makes it caustic, and may cause both skin and respiratory irritation and burns,” she warned. “There’s also heavy metals like arsenic in these samples. As well, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, and furans have been detected at concentrations above what has been recommended for public health.”
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, city councillor Allan Vinni expressed concern about the health risks of returning to Fort Mac.
“I believe a lot of people are putting their health ahead of an early return and I will include myself in that list,” he said. “I have serious concerns about the health risks and I am disappointed that the media, at least the traditional media, has not picked up on this aspect of the story.”
CBC reports the wildfires that raged through Fort McMurray are still burning across 580,000 acres of boreal forest, though cooler, wetter conditions over the next several days are expected to keep it from growing.