TORONTO — With wildfires raging and firefighters still struggling to control the situation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that now is not the time for him to visit the ravaged Alberta community of Fort McMurray.
Trudeau did promise to visit the region in the near future when the situation, which has forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, has calmed down.
"We're all aware that a prime minister showing up in Fort McMurray, when firefighters are busy trying to contain a massive raging wildfire, is not a particularly helpful thing," Trudeau said.
"But I am certain that in the coming weeks, I will have an opportunity to go out to Fort McMurray...to understand and share with Canadians the scale and the scope of the devastation that struck this community."
Trudeau, who was in Toronto for a transit funding announcement, said he looked forward to the visit because it was "extremely important" that he make the trip and express his support directly.
Last summer, former prime minister Stephen Harper came in for some criticism when he showed up on the fire lines near Kelowna, B.C., where a battle was underway to contain a large wildfire.
The brief visit and photo-op — which included exhausted firefighters — prompted one news outlet to publish a mocking account under the headline "Man in blue suit thanks firefighters." Other outlets, however, defended the visit, saying that's what good leaders do.
The horrific situation in Fort McMurray has seen 80,000 people forced to flee and at least 1,600 structures reduced to ash. It remained uncertain when anyone might be able to return to the city.
In the interim, Trudeau said, the main priority for his government was ensuring effective communications between those on the ground, the province and Ottawa, and ensuring emergency authorities get everything they need to deal with the catastrophic situation.
Among other things, the federal government has already met Alberta's requests for assistance, he said, including providing air assets and 7,000 cots for evacuees in emergency shelters, with 13,000 more on the way.
Trudeau praised Fort McMurray for having contributed over the years to Canada's economic growth, and said his government was committed to helping the community "not just in the days and weeks to come but also in the months and years to come."
As part of a series of transit funding announcements, the prime minister announced $840 million for upgrades to the Toronto system.