04/26/2020 22:49 EDT | Updated 04/27/2020 14:26 EDT

Fort McMurray Evacuation Orders Issued As Spring Thaw Swells Rivers

Social-distancing measures are a new layer in disaster preparedness.

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Spring ice breakup on rivers in northern Alberta forced evacuations and the complete closure of Fort McMurray’s downtown core early Monday.

A boil water advisory for a large section of the city was issued as well.

“Every year the ice breaks and we have some sort of event. Usually the ice flows on by. Once approximately every 20 years we have something different happen,” said Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, in a phone interview Sunday.

“This happens to be that year.”

The municipality declared a secondary state of local emergency, which comes on top of a state of local emergency declared last month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo handout via CP
Flooding is seen in the Longboat Landing area of Fort McMurray, Alta. on April 26, 2020 in this handout photo.

Scott said that for several days, officials were monitoring an ice jam about 10 kilometres upstream. Early Sunday morning, he said, it let loose.

Evacuation orders were issued before dawn Monday for properties along several streets in the Lower Townsite district and within an hour the municipality had closed access to the entire area.

Evacuees, including those staying at the Platinum Hotel, were told to report to a registration centre at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre, about seven kilometres to the south and farther removed from the rising waters of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers.

Mandatory evacuation orders had already been issued Sunday for Draper, a rural community of 187 residents just outside of Fort McMurray; for Longboat Landing, an area near the city’s downtown; and for the Tiaga Nova industrial park which also has a hotel.

Late Sunday afternoon, a voluntary evacuation order was made mandatory for the Waterways neighbourhood including the Ptarmigan Court Trailer Park.

Meanwhile, due to reports of discolouration in tap water in Fort McMurray neighbourhoods north of the Athabasca River bridges, Alberta Health Services directed the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to issue a boil water advisory.

The municipality also noted in a post on its Facebook page early Monday that areas south of the Athabasca River bridges were not affected at that time.

Christina MacKay of Wood Buffalo Housing, which manages assisted and independent living facilities for seniors in downtown Fort McMurray, said some families were coming by Sunday to pick up residents.

“We have buses ready,” MacKay said. “Just in case.”

Phil Meagher, a municipal councillor who surveyed the situation by bicycle, said he could see a gravel truck that was almost completely submerged in an area of town called the Snye where the Snye River meets the Clearwater River.

“Everything else in the Snye is totally under water. Even our skateboard park looks like a brand-new swimming pool,” said Meagher, who was speaking by cellphone from the bank of the Clearwater.

Everything else in the Snye is totally under water. Even our skateboard park looks like a brand-new swimming pool.Coun. Phil Meagher

Scott said social-distancing requirements were being followed, and evacuees were being housed in hotel rooms that the municipality pre-booked. Reports that the city’s water treatment facility was threatened or that the water would be contaminated weren’t true, he said.

He noted the municipality, which is at the confluence of three rivers, prepares every year for the possibility of flooding when the ice breaks up. Over a month ago, when officials issued public health orders related to COVID-19, he said they knew they’d have to incorporate the pandemic into their flood planning.

Scott noted Fort McMurray’s population is ready for disasters, such as the wildfire in 2016 that forced an evacuation of the entire city and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings.

“Because of the oilsands, people are very used to being in a very safety-driven environment. And if there’s any place that can face challenges, it’s ours,” Scott said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2020.

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