FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he doesn't think Canadians understand yet the scope of what happened in Fort McMurray where 2,400 buildings were destroyed by a wildfire last week. He said despite following updates and watching images on TV, the scale and the disaster didn't hit him until today. "I don't think Canadians yet understand what happened. They know there was a fire. They're beginning to hear the wonderful news that so much of the town was saved,'' he told 150 firefighters and first responders after his aerial tour by military helicopter of the northern Alberta city. "They don't yet understand that that wasn't a fluke of wind or rain or luck that happened. This was the extraordinary response by people such as yourself. The work you did to save so much of this community, to save so much of this city and its downtown core ... was unbelievable.''
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in Edmonton on Friday before a flight to Fort McMurray. Trudeau is making the visit to see first-hand the devastation caused by the wildfire that forced the evacuation of the city. (Photo: Jason Franson/Canadian Press) The prime minister also gave reassurances that the government will be there as the oilsands city recovers and rebuilds. "For many years, Fort McMurray contributed huge amounts to Canada's well-being, to the growth of our economy. Now this community needs help, and I can guarantee you, Canada will be here for this community.'' Trudeau left Edmonton this morning where he shook hands with the man who led the fight against the fierce fire. The prime minister was presented with his own Fort McMurray fire jacket by Chief Darby Allen on the tarmac of the international airport prior to a flight to Fort McMurray, about 435 kilometres to the northeast.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley looks on in Edmonton on, May 13, 2016. (Photo: Jason Franson/Canadian Press) The flight took Trudeau over a patchwork of devastated neighbourhoods where some homes still stand, while others have been burned to their foundations. The forest surrounding the airport, trees looking like little more than used matchsticks, is charred right up to the tarmac and the ground has been left blackened. After landing, Trudeau got on a military helicopter for a first-hand look from the air. He is also to tour a damaged neighbourhood on the ground.
"Right now the residents aren't there, but there are hundreds and hundreds of emergency workers."
More than 80,000 residents had to evacuate their homes May 3 as the flames carved a destructive path through the city. Officials say more than 2,400 homes and other structures were destroyed and another 530 were damaged, but 25,000 were saved. Accompanying Trudeau to Fort McMurray are Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and some federal cabinet ministers, who are part of a special committee that is to co-ordinate aid and reconstruction efforts in the city. Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, is also present. It's expected Notley will press the prime minister for enhanced employment insurance benefits for the Edmonton area as a consequence of the wildfire. Ottawa is already fast-tracking EI claims from displaced Fort McMurray workers.
Wildfire devastation in Fort McMurray, as shown from a media tour on Monday. (Katie Daubs/Toronto Star via Getty Images) Trudeau and Notley are to hold a news conference in Edmonton later in the day. 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. "We've been working hard for the last two or three days on this re-entry plan (for residents). We've got a few challenges around that.'' Blake said it is critical for Trudeau to tour the burned neighbourhoods. "I'm personally very appreciative that he's coming in to survey it first hand, because once you see it, you know just how daunting the work will be, but how important it is to make it back to what it was before.''
A devastated neighbourhood is shown in Fort McMurray on May 13, 2016. (Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press) Alberta MP Kent Hehr, who heads the special committee, said it's a personal trip for him as well. He said it's important to go home and show people that the federal government will be there for them in the reconstruction. "It's very difficult for me as an Albertan,'' said Hehr, who representing a Calgary riding. "I used to play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League where we had the opportunity to go up and play the Fort McMurray Oil Barons when I was a kid,'' he said.
Fire support crew members make preparations during a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) Alberta senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison is getting his second look at the fire. He said crews just couldn't stop the fire from torching homes, even though they got on it quickly. "We were throwing everything at it and it wasn't phasing it. Mother Nature was going to take it and go for a roll.'' The fire is now more than 2,400 square kilometres in size and has moved away from the city. It is expected to burn in forested areas for many more weeks.