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Monday 19 February 2018

Canadian PM arrives in fire-ravaged Fort McMurray

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to take a helicopter tour of the devastation during a visit to Fort McMurray (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to take a helicopter tour of the devastation during a visit to Fort McMurray (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Canada's Prime Minister has landed in Fort McMurray and boarded a military helicopter to assess the damage caused by a raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of more than 88,000 people in the country's oil sands capital.

Justin Trudeau arrived almost two weeks after a massive wildfire ignited, tearing through the Alberta town and surrounding areas, causing several oil sands operations to shut down. Alberta officials say they will have a plan within two weeks for getting residents back into their homes.

Mr Trudeau was scheduled to tour one of the city's damaged neighbourhoods and visit with first responders and volunteers. He planned to meet with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley later in the day.

The helicopter ride took Mr Trudeau over a patchwork of devastated neighbourhoods where some homes still stand, while others have been burned to their foundations. Alberta officials say 2,432 structures have been destroyed, 530 damaged and 25,000 saved.

In the forest surrounding the Fort McMurray airport, where Mr Trudeau landed, trees looked like little more than used match sticks, charred right up to the tarmac, and the ground was blackened.

"I heard there were situations and peculiarities in this fire that give us pause for reflection on how we move forward," Mr Trudeau told Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen, who led the fight against the fierce fire.

"I'm very, very interested in not just what we manage to do to get through this one, but what we can do around minimising the impacts of the next one - because it will come."

Mr Allen said having the prime minister visit is a morale boost.

"Right now the residents aren't there, but there are hundreds and hundreds of emergency workers. I think they'll get a lift from that," he said.

Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, accompanied Mr Trudeau, saying it was critical for him to tour the burned neighbourhoods.

"Once you see it, you know not just how daunting the work will be, but how important it is to make it back to what it was before," she said.

Mr Trudeau was also accompanied by Ms Notley and some federal cabinet ministers, who are part of a special committee that will coordinate aid and reconstruction efforts in the city.

Alberta Member of Parliament Kent Hehr, who heads the special committee, said it is important to show people that the federal government will be there for them in the reconstruction.

"It's very difficult for me as an Albertan," said Mr Hehr, who represents a Calgary district.

More than 80,000 residents had to evacuate Sheir homes on May 3 as the flames carved a destructive path through the city.

The fire is now 930 square miles in size and has moved away from the city. It is expected to burn in forested areas for at least a few more weeks.

The more than 80,000 evacuees have begun receiving direct financial assistance from the Alberta government and the Canadian Red Cross as officials asked for patience in getting residents home.

Canadian Red Cross chief executive Conrad Sauve has said that each adult will receive 600 Canadian dollars (£323) and each child will get 300 Canadian dolllars (£162) in what he called the most important and fastest direct cash transfer in the organisation's history. It totals 50 million Canadian dollars. (£27 million).

That is in addition to the 1,250 Canadian dollars (£672) per adult and 500 Canadian dollars (£269) per dependent from the government.

Press Association

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