EDMONTON — As the planning inches forward to eventually get thousands of Fort McMurray evacuees back into their homes, the job has already begun to reunite many those forced to flee the flames with something else they need to get their lives moving again.
Their cars and trucks.
The blaze earlier this month effectively cut Fort McMurray in two, forcing about 25,000 people north to the safety of oilsands work camps, while the other 70,000 were sent streaming south in a bumper-to-bumper snake line of cars and trucks that stretched beyond the horizon down Highway 63.
There wasn't time to fuel up and some vehicles had to be abandoned, the victims of engine trouble or a lack of gas.
Vehicles drive away from Fort McMurray as winds pick up and smoke begins to darken just south of Fort McMurray, Alta. on May 4, 2016. (Photo: Topher Seguin/Reuters)
"There were lots of vehicles that were left on the side of the road, in medians between the different lanes of the highway,'' said Graeme McElheran, director of communications for Alberta Transportation.
"We are working on a strategy right now to reunite people with those vehicles.''
For 101 vehicles recovered on Highway 63 south of Fort McMurray over the past week, owners can now claim them now from a lot in Wandering River, approximately 230 km north of Edmonton.
"The phone lines have been flooded.''
"It's Saturday so everybody's coming up,'' said Derek Marsh, general manager of Double L Towing and Highway 63 Towing. "There's everything from bikes to trucks.''
"The phone lines have been flooded.''
Burned cars and rubble are seen during a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray, Alta. on Wednesday. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Marsh said he and about a half-dozen other tow-truck drivers with his company started retrieving vehicles on Sunday. Some were difficult to tow because after they ran out of gas, they were pushed into ditches to keep them from blocking the highway.
They've been releasing vehicles to their owners since Tuesday. The tanks are filled with gas, compliments of the province. The government is also covering the towing and storage fees.
About 30 vehicles have already been claimed
Marsh said about 30 vehicles were claimed by Saturday.
Fort McMurray remains off limits to the public and there's no date for when residents can return.
McElheran didn't have an exact number on how many abandoned vehicles were being towed, but estimated it to be in the hundreds.
Fire support crew extinguish a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray, Alta. on Wednesday. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Towing is still in progress to lots inside Fort McMurray for vehicles that were left on Highway 881 and Highway 61 just south of the city, as well as inside the city and north up to the community of Fort McKay, according to McElheran.
Unlike the vehicles that have been towed to Wandering River, McElheran said there's no way, yet, for the owners to call about whether their vehicles are waiting for them. But he said the province is working on it, including what to do if owners can't provide the information they need to claim their rides.
"It really is day-by-day as we develop this aspect of the emergency response.''
"Often people leave that information in the vehicle itself. Sometimes they have it at home, sometimes they may not be able to get back to their homes, say, in Fort Mac in order to get the insurance, to prove that they have it,'' McElheran said.
"If they can't get an answer about the presence of their vehicle on one day they should try again the next day. That's our approach. I mean, it really is day-by-day as we develop this aspect of the emergency response,'' he added.