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Justin Trudeau praises firefighters' efforts to save Canadian oil sands city

Published 14/05/2016

Justin Trudeau visited the northern Alberta city devastated by wildfire
Justin Trudeau visited the northern Alberta city devastated by wildfire

Justin Trudeau has said most Canadians have yet to grasp the lengths to which firefighters went to save nearly 90% of the oil sands capital of Fort McMurray from a massive wildfire.

More than 88,000 people had to be evacuated because of the fire.

The Canadian prime minister visited the devastated northern Alberta city on Friday almost two weeks after the wildfire ignited, making an aerial tour by military helicopter.

The blaze tore through the isolated region and surrounding areas, causing several oil sands operations to shut down.

Alberta officials said they will have a plan within two weeks for getting residents back into their homes.

Mr Trudeau took a helicopter ride over a patchwork of devastated neighbourhoods, where some homes still stand while others burned to their foundations.

Alberta officials said 2,432 structures were destroyed, 530 damaged and 25,000 saved. Altogether, 85-90% of the city was saved.

"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.

"But 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."

Mr Trudeau toured one of the damaged neighbourhoods after his visit before meeting with Alberta premier Rachel Notley.

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

"When I got a chance to fly over the community, the first thing you notice is the smoke, the haze, the smell in the air.

"Even from the airport, which was untouched, you can tell the scale and the scope of what just happened.

"And then you notice the blackened forest that surrounds Fort McMurray... entire swaths of burned out trees and hillsides," Mr Trudeau said.

He told of the moment when he saw a small plastic child's scooter on the pavement as he toured the city.

"The one thing I realized, unlike so many images we've seen, that little plastic scooter, whatever little boy or girl was using that just before the evacuation, they're safe. They're alive," he said.

"They're being sheltered by friends or family or kind strangers."

"Yes, this was a terrible disaster to befall this community but there is strength here and a will to build a stronger future," Mr Trudeau added.

The prime minister and Ms Notley thanked the first responders, the evacuees, and Canadians who donated funds to the Red Cross, sent care packages or opened their homes to those who fled the fire.

"When we stick together and when we have each other's backs, we are all stronger," said Ms Notley.

Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen, who led the fight against the fire, said the prime minister's visit was 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 some federal cabinet ministers, who are part of a committee that will coordinate aid and reconstruction efforts in the city.

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

Mr Hehr, who represents a Calgary district, said it was "very difficult for me as an Albertan" to witness the damage.

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

The fire is now 930 square miles (2,410 square km) 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.

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