Warmer weather shrinking the massive ice jam responsible for Fort McMurray flooding

Mother Nature appears to be getting the upper hand on the massive ice jam in northeastern Alberta that has caused devastating flooding in and around Fort McMurray, with warmer temperatures offering hope to thousands of evacuees waiting for the river to break.

As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, the ice jam was 13 kilometres long, seven kilometres shorter than the day before, according to emergency officials. 

Water levels on the Clearwater, Athabasca and Hangingstone rivers continue to fluctuate, but reports show levels are down across all three, officials with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) said on Wednesday. 

The flooding began Sunday, when a 25-kilometre sheet of ice effectively dammed the Athabasca River, forcing the Clearwater to reverse course and flood the city’s downtown core.

Alberta politicians and river scientists have repeatedly said warming temperatures are the best weapon against the ice jam and that manmade efforts — such as explosives — could cause further danger downstream. 

The province and the municipality have been in regular contact with the federal government about potential assistance, including whether to call in the military.   

A dangerous downtown

In a news release Wednesday, the municipality’s emergency officials said military assistance is not needed.

“We will continue to assess and evaluate, and should conditions change, we will reconsider a request,” said Scott Davis, the RMWB’s director of emergency management.

Images of downtown Fort McMurray show a community overwhelmed by flood waters. Water levels in the nearby rivers continue to fluctuate. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Mandatory evacuation orders remain in effect for almost every area of the community’s lower townsite, where conditions remain dangerous.   

Nearly 13,000 people have been forced from their homes, with many taking shelter in hotel rooms and oilsands work camps. Initial surveys show that 1,230 properties have been damaged, a number that is expected to grow. 

One person has died in the floodwaters. 

A phased re-entry plan is being developed, the municipality said, but the flood zone remains off-limits.

“The risk in areas under mandatory evacuation orders remains high, as water can become electrically charged or ice can shift, causing further flooding and water and debris to begin moving very quickly,” Davis said. 

Financial aid for evacuees

Financial relief for evacuees was announced by Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday. 

Residents forced from their homes due to flooding will receive emergency payments. Starting Monday, evacuees can apply for $1,250 for each adult and $500 for each child.

Kenney said those who are being sheltered in hotels and other accommodations will have their costs covered by the province and local municipalities.

“It is just too much for some people to bear,” he said. “But we want them to know that the government and the people of Alberta stand with them and we are providing every possible support to them.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said he spoke with Kenney and indicated the federal government is ready to provide any assistance that is requested, including helping with recovery and cleanup efforts.

Man dies in surging waters

On Tuesday, there was a stark reminder of the dangers posed by the spring thaw.

A man from the Fort McKay First Nation, about 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, died after he and another person were caught by rising waters of the Athabasca River. 

RCMP said the two were on their ATVs on a trail near family trapping grounds when the river suddenly rose and they were pulled into the icy water. The men were able to keep afloat on a log and call for help.

The two were airlifted to hospital, where the older man died of his injuries. Two women, two children and two dogs were also rescued from a nearby cabin and taken to safety.

A community effort

The flooding comes as Fort McMurray is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn caused by crashing oil prices. A raging wildfire in May 2016 forced the evacuation of the entire city and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings.

Michelle Toner, who fled the city during the fire four years ago, said this latest natural disaster has taken a toll.

“To start seeing those lineups again and then hearing helicopters overhead — it was a little all-too familiar,” she said. “This time of year is really emotional for people in Fort McMurray.”

The 41-year-old volunteered Monday at one of the evacuee registration centres. 

Toner said she knew when she decided to volunteer that she would have access to personal protective equipment because Fort McMurray is a “safety-conscious community.”

As she was volunteering, she saw a mother washing her baby with a bottle of water in the parking lot. Another family had a child who requires a feeding tube and they weren’t sure where they were going to stay that night.

“They’re heavy things,” she said.

Toner said she was one of about 30 volunteers who helped evacuees get registered. Hundreds of others put down sandbags around the hospital or installed dams.

Wood Buffalo residents have been granted an exemption from physical distancing and other provincial health measures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus. Tuesday’s decision was intended to make it easier for volunteers and workers involved in sandbagging, pumping and other flood-prevention work.

Based on her time volunteering on the front line of the flood, Toner said COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be stopping people from helping out.

“They were all wearing masks and gloves,” she said. “But they were really more concerned about the people and the community than they were about the virus.”

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is holding a virtual community town hall on Thursday at 5:50 p.m. local time to provide an update on the flood. Details on how to watch the update can be found on the municipality’s website. 

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