Fort McMurray must wait on Alberta before troops can be called to help with flooding

Military assistance has not yet been formally requested for Fort McMurray, where thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes by rising rivers flooding the northern Alberta community. 

The Tuesday morning clarification by Don Scott, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, was contrary to information he’d posted on social media the day before, in which he stated that the municipality had requested federal assistance, including military support.

Scott told a news conference that he believes the military could help the community deal with the crisis but said that decision must come from the provincial emergency operations centre. 

“In an emergency situation like this, it’s the director of emergency management who would make the call,” Scott said.

He said talks with Premier Jason Kenney are continuing and that the municipality has made a series of “large asks,” including more equipment and more RCMP officers. Scott remains hopeful the community will get the help it needs. 

“He said he would not stand in the way of any request this municipality needs, we would just need to provide the details,” Scott said. “I understand it’s something that our team is taking into account, whether military support is required.”

Scott said he spoke to federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair on Monday.

“[Blair] said the federal government would be eager to help. They just need to receive a request from the province, so it’s not a decision that mayor and council would make.”

A grocery store is surrounded by floodwater on Franklin Avenue in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Monday. (Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press)

About 12,000 leave homes

With the exception of emergency crews who travelled the streets by boat, Fort McMurray’s downtown remained deserted Tuesday morning as rivers jammed with ice continued to overflow their banks.

About 12,000 residents have been forced to leave their homes since flooding began on Sunday, according to the premier’s office, as a result of the spring ice breakup on the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. 

Officials had been monitoring an ice jam about 10 kilometres upstream on the Athabasca for several days. It let loose early Sunday and eventually became jammed.

The river, heaving with ice, began flowing backwards and then into town.

“The river is jammed up for about 25 kilometres, and unfortunately then there is another 10-kilometre jam further up from that,” Environment Minister Jason Nixon said, as he and Kenney toured the evacuation zone Monday both by helicopter and on the ground.   

Nixon said all government officials can do is wait for the ice jam to thaw. 

“At this point, the ice jam is so big, there is really no physical tool that we have to stop it so we just have to continue to try to protect the town and property as much as we can and wait for Mother Nature to do its job.” 

In a video posted to social media on Monday, Kenney noted that some residents have been calling for the military to bomb the ice jam, but he said explosives are not the answer.

“Apparently that was a tactic used back in 1972 and our river experts have looked at that very closely and are saying that would just not work in this situation,” Kenney said. “It would not displace the ice, it would just create tighter jams in some places. 

“The province will provide all assistance possible and, if necessary, we’ll also call on any federal resources that may be needed to help out.” 

Downtown homes and businesses in Fort McMurray were swamped after an ice jam caused flooding in the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. (McMurray Aviation)

The entire lower townsite, with the exception of a single neighbourhood and the community’s only hospital, has been placed under mandatory evacuation. Access to the downtown was closed on Monday, and residents who left the area were prohibited from returning. 

Residents of the Grayling Terrace neighbourhood have so far avoided mandatory evacuation orders but will have their gas service cut this morning. Heat or hot water will not be available for residents who choose not to evacuate.

Officials have said the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, which remains under voluntary evacuation, is not under threat but volunteers worked through the night building a berm of white sandbags along the eastern edge of the property. 

One-in-100-year flood

“I would have liked to see nothing more than the military used or dynamite used to get us past this situation,” Scott said on Tuesday. “This is, to my understanding, the worst flood this region has experienced in 100 years.” 

The Athabasca and Hangingstone Rivers have subsided but Clearwater is still rising, he said. Scott said the ice jam is still about 22 1/2 kilometres long.

He called on evacuees to co-operate with emergency officials and commended them on the calm shown during the evacuation process.

“This is the one-in-a-100-year flood that people talk about when they’re doing planning. It’s just unfortunately this year on top of the COVID pandemic.”

More than 200 rescue operations were performed yesterday and additional calls came in overnight, said Scott Davis, the municipality’s Director of Emergency Management.

Anyone who travels into restricted areas put themselves and first responders at risk, he said. 

“This is a critical situation at a critical time,” Davis said Tuesday. 

“Everyone needs to take it seriously. Water levels on the Clearwater are still rising.

“What some don’t realize is that there are electrical [hazards] and contaminated waters that can threaten your safety.” 

An emergency registration centre has been set up at the Oil Sands Discovery Centre about seven kilometres south of Fort McMurray. As of noon MT Monday, around 5,000 people had registered, a number that was expected to grow as rolling evacuation orders were issued throughout the day.

By Monday, a second registration centre had been established at the Casman Centre, a local hockey rink. Evacuees who didn’t require immediate assistance were being asked not to report to the local registration centres to due the high volume of people in need. 

“It’s been devastating for the community,” said Scott said in a video posted to social media on Monday. 

“We had a significant number of businesses in our downtown that will not be reopening for some time and a lot of houses of people that I know, they’re telling me that their basements are completely flooded so it’s going to be a real challenge.” 

With local hotels nearing capacity, the municipality was preparing to house evacuees in oilsands work camps. At least 60 people had to stay overnight at the Casman arena but were being kept in separate rooms. 

Ice jams the Athabasca River near downtown Fort McMurray on Sunday. (The Canadian Press)

The municipality has asked for help from the federal government, after declaring a second state of local emergency on top of one declared last month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At his briefing Tuesday morning in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is ready to help.

“This morning our thoughts go out to those of you who live in Fort McMurray as you deal with spring flooding, Trudeau said. “We stand ready to help. To all the first responders and volunteers out there placing sandbags, including around the hospital, thank you.”

Provincial officials are expected to provide an update on flooding situation during a news conference later today. 

Floodwater advances toward the Ptarmigan trailer court in the Waterways neighbourhood of Fort McMurray on Sunday. (Greg Halinda/The Canadian Press)