In May 2016 about 88,000 Fort McMurray residents faced gridlock as “The Beast” barreled toward the city.
Now the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is promising $5 million to begin a pre-design of a second highway in and out of the city.
Earlier this week, council voted unanimously to support a second highway or emergency evacuation route that would run to the east and parallel to Highway 63. It would be called the “East Clearwater Highway.”
Documents submitted to council show an alternate route is of the highest priority and there can no longer be sole reliance on Highway 63 for residents to exit the region.
“There are numerous scenarios that could prevent or severely restrict traffic movement on this route during an emergency evacuation. This includes, but would not be limited to, a fire or severe traffic incident blocking the route.”
The second highway is intended to be accessible by the majority of the population in the region and must have sufficient capacity to manage the efficient evacuation of a large percentage of the regional population, according to documents submitted to council.
It also must be a “sufficient distance from the current route (Highway 63) such that a disaster affecting Highway 63 would be unlikely to threaten this route as well.”
Resident Melissa Gallant describes the May 3 evacuation as alarming.
“I started to see the traffic. It wasn’t even the fire that alarmed me – it was the traffic,” she said, describing it as completely gridlocked.
By the time she reunited with her children and mother, she realized heading south on Highway 63 was not an option anymore.
“We were potentially heading into a dead end. In my heart of hearts, that was one of the most sinking moments I had because, I knew at that point, I knew we were in danger and there was nowhere else to go.”
She was forced to head north during the evacuation and was at this week’s council meeting calling for the second highway.
“What could happen did happen. It’s only by the grace of God that we didn’t lose any lives to fire leaving here,” she said.
“I don’t feel safe living in my community and I won’t feel safe living in my community until there is something done about getting us out in a situation like this again.”
“I don’t think until the actual fire of May 3rd that we understood the real threat to public safety that we have in this community,” Jeanette Bancarz, chairperson of the Wood Buffalo Recovery Committee, said.
Councillor Sheldon Germain seconded those thoughts.
“There is 88,000 near misses on May 3 and we were lucky and blessed to get out,” he said.
He is calling on various levels of government to help make a second highway a reality.
“There are images all over the world of what we endured, and I don’t think any politician in Alberta or Canada would make us go through it again,” he said.
“They have seen our community. They know the geographic challenges of our community. They know what we went through on May 3.”
The pre-design work would include any geotechnical work related to the alignment, provide a traffic model that considers the evacuation of the region, perform any stakeholder engagement and determine the scope, cost and schedule to construct the highway.
Premier Rachel Notley said the idea for the province to help with the creation of a second highway is under consideration. She said a review of the emergency response to the fire is underway.
“We’re going to see what that has to say about the safety elements of that matter and what the best way to respond to it is. We’re happy to hear the recommendation and we’ll give it some considerations.”
The cost of the new highway is estimated at $1.5 billion. (kb) (with files from Global News)