Front-line workers warn of Fort McMurray re-entry safety hazards

Emergency experts are raising safety concerns about the timeline for the return of evacuees to Fort McMurray.

Just a week before the scheduled voluntary re-entry, retired firefighter Gareth Norris said firefighters are still putting out hotspots while waist-deep pits of ash smolder around the city.

“These areas are still hot and are a potential danger for house fires should the wind pick up and carry this ash into town," said Norris, who worked with the Fort McMurray Fire Department for 17 years and trained some of those currently on the front line.

Last week, the province announced plans for a phased re-entry starting June 1, based on several conditions. Among them, the fire must no longer be an imminent threat to the city, with supplies of potable water available and reasonable air quality.

Norris said he is troubled by a government handbook that tells returning residents to bring two weeks worth of food, drinking water and an N-95 respirator mask.

"Why would we need that if it was okay to come in and breathe the air?,” asked Norris, who left during the mass evacuation but said he is in regular contact with first responders who have expressed concerns.

“To me, that means it’s not safe,” he said. “If you’re telling me to bring everything I need to camp in my home, and a dust mask, and don’t let my animals out into the ashes, and definitely not my children — then there’s an issue.”

He plans to leave his children in Edmonton when he returns next week to check on his home and business.

‘It’s definitely a threat’

A front-line worker currently in Fort McMurray told CBC News he won’t bring his two small children home anytime soon either.

He’s worried about the safety of the water and available healthcare, as well as hotspots throughout the city.

“If it was like this on the day they were re-entering I would definitely be cautious about it,” said the first responder, who agreed to speak with CBC News on condition of anonymity. “It’s definitely a threat.”

He said while he empathizes with those who feel the need to return, as a father, ​he feels it’s not safe.

“You need a fully functioning hospital to be ready because if my kid gets sick, I want them to have the best care possible, not being looked at in a tent.”

But he said he personally feels safe, and he’s pleased to see the amount of work going into getting the city ready.

“They are working their butts off to make it safe,” he said of workers restoring gas, electricity and water. "They are trying to make it safe by the time you get up here.“

Re-entry on track, despite air quality concerns

On Tuesday evening, the air quality index was considered low risk at 3 on a scale of 1-10, but Norris said that could easily change. Just nine days ago, it was 38.

He said the index does not address potential lethal combinations of chemicals including carcinogens from burnt material during the salvage and overhaul phase.

Norris said there are entire communities in this phase.

"I’m not sure I want anyone I know to be breathing that in, especially my kids,” Norries said.

He also expressed concern about conflicting information from officials: the re-entry handbook says water can be used for bathing but an alcohol-based hand sanitizer must be used after hand washing.

The province said Tuesday it was still working towards next week’s re-entry, and that restoration on the hospital began Sunday.

“We are still on track for a voluntary phased re-entry, beginning June 1,” Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said.

“But I remind all Wood Buffalo residents that all services will not be fully operational by then, and there may be people who choose to wait as a result."​

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar

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