Thousands of wildfires evacuees in northern Alberta told they can return home

Many of the nearly 5,000 Albertans evacuated from their homes due to forest fires have started to be allowed to return home.

Many of the nearly 5,000 Albertans evacuated from their homes due to forest fires have started to be allowed to return home.

Late Tuesday night, the Municipal District of Opportunity announced an evacuation order had been lifted for residents of the hamlet of Wabasca.

The MD said RCMP would be on hand to supervise the return and warned that essential services in the hamlet might be limited or delayed for the time being.

Officials also said reception centres would remain open in nearby communities on Wednesday and meals would continue to be served for those who couldn’t immediately get back home.

Cyndi Taron of the MD said most residents of the Bigstone reserve would also be allowed home, although she said about 200 in a specific part of the reserve would remain on evacuation order.

An evacuation order was also lifted Tuesday afternoon for the area of the Old Smith Highway, and about 300 residents were expected to begin returning over the next day.

However, those who returned were told to remain on a 30-minute evacuation notice, and Chief Jamie Coutts of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service advised they should not disable or remove any sprinklers on their property.

Taron said no similar order would apply to the thousands of people returning to Wabasca, saying that provincial officials felt confident the fire was being held and the danger was over.

“However, we are keeping the state of local emergency on for a while yet, as a precaution,” she said.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said he hopes people will abide by a provincewide fire ban.

“Most of the province is under a high to severe fire threat and it is incredibly important at this time that we all do everything we can to keep people safe.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 70 fires burning in the province; 20 were considered to be out of control.

The fire about 20 kilometres east Slave Lake was estimated to be five square kilometres in size. The fire near Wabasca and Bigstone was about two square kilometres.

But Taron said lightning that was forecast for Tuesday night never materialized and the weather had cooled.

No one was relaxing, however, as the entire province has had a long stretch of hot, dry weather.

“We haven’t seen very much significant rain since the snow left back in the spring and that’s what’s causing the high fire hazard in many of these areas,” said wildfire officer Geoffrey Driscoll. “And that’s also what’s causing the fires to get big fast.”

More than 600 firefighters were working directly on the wildfires and the government was considering putting a call out for reinforcements. About 100 firefighters from Ontario and water bombers from Quebec have already made the trip west to help.

The wildfires also forced more evacuations from oilsands sites in the Cold Lake area Tuesday.

One fire, about 100 square kilometres in size, was threatening the only access road into the facilities.

Statoil Canada said that it was voluntarily removing non-essential staff from its Leismer project south of Fort McMurray. Company spokesman Peter Symons said Leismer continues to produce oil, but only about 30 of the project’s 185 workers remain at the site.

MEG Energy was also getting non-essential staff and contractors away from its Christina Lake facilities.

Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources earlier shut down projects as a safety precaution, sending about 2,000 workers home.

Meanwhile, officials in Edmonton issued a precautionary air quality advisory for the city due to smoke from the wildfires.

Alberta Health Services said the advisory could last for weeks.

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