Fort McMurray evacuees gathered among the news cameras and stood on chairs to hear a little bit of what interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose had to say Monday during an impromptu visit to Lac La Biche, Alta., — a town that has taken in thousands of people seeking refuge from a massive wildfire.
Flanked by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and Fort McMurray's Tory MP David Yurgida, the leader of the Official Opposition began by pointing out that she hadn't come to make political theatre of criticizing the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"This is my home province, so of course I am here," she told a horde of media gathered outside the Bold Center, a sprawling recreational facility that is currently home to 420 evacuees. More than 4,700 other people have registered with the Red Cross and come for hot meals, essential supplies and warm clothes as the temperature dropped.
The small town of about 2,500 people quickly became a destination after the mandatory evacuation of Fort McMurray was ordered last Tuesday. The parking lot at the rec centre is packed with RVs, while some evacuees have chosen to live in their cars.
"I am not going to be critical of the prime minister," she said, adding that "he has his reasons for not being here, and I am sure he'll be here at some point."
Although firefighters managed to save about 85 per cent of the structures in Fort McMurray, the damage is still breathtaking. Inside the building, evacuees watched on television as CBC reporters live broadcast a trip through burned-out remains of parts of the town. Some tried to identify their homes in the ruins, while others pointed out what had been their favourite spot to grab some food or play with their kids.
It could take years to rebuild, and Ambrose said that should be the government's priority in the coming weeks and months.
"The only request I've made so far of the prime minister so far is to start to re-prioritize some of the infrastructure funding. There's only so much, and this community is going to need it," she said to scattered applause from people in the small crowd.
(Photo: Matthew Usherwood/CP)
Once people can return, the focus should be on getting Fort McMurray oil back onto the market. Ambrose said global headlines about the fire, which has scorched more than 2,000 square kilometres, have spooked investors.
"Getting that production back online as quickly as possible, it's important not just for the economy of this community but for the GDP of our country," she added.
Ambrose also said the federal government should make accommodations for workers in urgent need of employment insurance.
'They can keep talking'
When reporters asked what role climate change may be playing in longer, more intense fire seasons, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean jumped in, saying that "there's no question climate change is affecting things right across the north," but that Alberta has always faced big wildfires.
After the press conference, some evacuees expressed frustration that they've been given no precise time for when they might be able to return to their homes.
Bob Kuelieg, 63, said he's been living in his small SUV since Tuesday. He's on five medications after a hernia operation last winter and a heart attack in March. But he wanted to leave the cots inside for families.
"The Red Cross says they've raised over $50 million," Kuelieg said, sipping cold coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "They gave each of us $50. What am I supposed to do with that? I don't have a fridge, so I can't buy a lot of groceries. How long will I have to lay, in pain, in my car?"
He commended the volunteers, saying they've been like guardian angels.
"But politicians? They can keep talking. The proof will be in the pudding."
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