Weekly update: Wildfire a costly ordeal for many, 2023 drug deaths hit record high

The news and events of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

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Happy Friday, Fort McMurray!

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  • Fort McMurray Giants: Home opener against Edmonton Prospects tonight, on Saturday and Sunday. More baseball action at Legacy Dodge Field against the Sylvan Lake Gulls on June 5, Sylvan Lake Gulls on June 6, Regina Red Sox on June 7-8, Okotoks Dawgs on June 20-23, Weyburn Beavers on June 26-27, Brooks Bombers on June 29-July 2. Tickets and schedule of this season’s home games.
  • Icebreaker 2024: The Area 63 Mini Stock series and Clearwater Contender V8 series returns for another season at the new and improved Supertest Speedway at Area 63. May 25 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets and race details.
  • River’s Edge Resort public engagement: Developers of the proposed River’s Edge Event Centre and Resort in Draper are presenting their concept of the project and having one-on-one discussions with residents. May 30 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion. Information on the project.
  • Métis Fest: McMurray Métis invites the community to celebrate the Métis heritage and culture of the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region. May 31 from 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. and June 1 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. at MacDonald Island Park.
  • Rock the Rails: Rock The Rails is BACK! Featuring legendary punk band Authority Zero and more than a dozen other acts from across Canada and the United States! June 7-8 at Syncrude Athletic Park. Information.
  • West Coast Amusements: Canada’s biggest travelling carnival returns to Fort McMurray. June 13-17. Tickets.
  • Fort McMurray Fringe Festival: Local theatre company Theatre, Just Because is launching the first Fort McMurray Fringe Festival at Heritage Village on Aug. 31. Submissions are open until June 14. Information on submissions and the festival.
  • Western Canada Ribfest Tour: This free event will be a drive-thru ribfest at Centerfire Place on June 21 and 22 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and June 23 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • 2024 Pride YMM Festival: The eighth annual Pride YMM Festival returns to Heritage Shipyard on June 22. This free event will have live music, arts and craft vendors, a two-spirit teepee, food trucks, a beer garden, carnival games and the Pride YMM Leadership Awards. A list of local Pride Month events are online.
  • Take the Pledge: Want a chance to win a helicopter ride AND reduce wildfire risk? Pledge to reduce wildfires in the Fort McMurray Forest Area by August 16 and you’ll be entered to win a helicopter tour of the region! Take the pledge today online.
  • Wood Buffalo Regional Library hosts all-ages weekly events.
  • MacDonald Island Park updates its website with upcoming events and programs.
  • Wood Buffalo Volunteers has volunteer opportunities for different causes and non-profits across Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.
  • Obituaries: Obituaries, memorial notices and sympathy announcements.

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Firefighters get briefed before looking for hot spots near a wildfire burning southwest of Fort McMurray on May 19, 2024. Image supplied by Alberta Wildfire

Fort McMurray wildfire considered held, not expected to grow

The wildfire burning southwest of Fort McMurray is not expected to grow anymore as of last Sunday, according to wildfire officials. Thanks to rain, cool weather, fire breaks and the work of firefighters last week, the wildfire is considered held.

The wildfire caused the evacuation of four neighbourhoods on May 14 and scattered at least 6,600 people across the province. As of Thursday, it has remained at 19,451 hectares since Sunday. It’s closest point to the city was 4.5 kilometres from the intersection of highways 63 and 881, and 5.5 kilometres from the Fort McMurray landfill.

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Now that the wildfire is contained and no longer spreading, firefighting crews will slowly chip away at its size by extinguishing hot spots.

The wildfire itself will continue burning for months. The weather right now is cool and damp, but Alberta Wildfire spokesperson Josee St-Onge said wildfire smoke could be visible when the hot, dry summer weather returns.

St-Onge says extinguishing a wildfire this size will be a long, slow process. The 2016 Horse River Wildfire, for instance, was spotted on May 1 and brought under control on July 4. It was officially extinguished 15 months later on August 2, 2017.

Fort McMurray residents outside an evacuation centre set up at the Clareview Recreation Centre in Edmonton on May 15, 2024. More than 6,600 people were forced to leave their homes when a wildfire the previous day forced the evacuation of the neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek. Photo by David Bloom/Postmedia Network

Wildfire evacuation a costly expense for some evacuees

Fort McMurray resident Ryan Earle is one of many evacuees who are learning they cannot afford a wildfire evacuation.

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Earle was part of the evacuation of Prairie Creek on May 14 and spent about $500 on a hotel, food, gas and clothes, and borrowed another $300 from people.

He was told the evacuation may last until May 21, long enough for evacuees to be qualify for $1,250 from the Alberta government and $500 per child. Earle bought enough supplies to last the week. The evacuation instead ended on May 18.

“It’s definitely hurt the wallet. I have to pay my regular bills and things are already tight enough for me. Than I was told I had to evacuate. It just doesn’t seem right,” said Earle, who has a workplace spinal injury and is living off a claim from the Workers Compensation Board of Alberta.

The Canadian Red Cross set up supports for accommodations and food, but many evacuees reported they still used their own money for supports.

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Some people felt they were better supported eight years ago during the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. Others are frustrated they spent more than they needed to on supplies. They had been warned by municipal and provincial emergency officials to prepare for a longer evacuation period.

Dan Edwards, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, says Alberta’s seven-day waiting period for financial relief is too long. He things it should be shortened to five days.

“If you’re a family of four staying in a hotel for even one night, that gets really expensive really fast,” said Edwards.

highway 63
An aerial view of Highway 63 with the Taiganova industrial park flanking the highway before Confederation Drive, in Fort McMurray Alta., Thursday, May 4, 2017. Olivia Condon/ Fort McMurray Today/ Postmedia Network

Council asking Alberta government to fully twin Highway 63 to Edmonton

Council will ask the Alberta government to twin the remaining sections of Highway 63 and parts of Highway 28. If the province follows through with this demand, the route connecting Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo and Edmonton will be twinned entirely.

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The motion was originally supposed to be heard at a May 14 meeting, but that meeting was postponed as a wildfire triggered an evacuation of four neighbourhoods.

Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion, said last week’s evacuation shows the need for a fully twinned route to Edmonton.

Highway 63 is fully twinned from Fort McMurray to Atmore, a hamlet in Athabasca County. The highway goes back to a single-lane route for the remainder of the drive. The twinning was finished in late May 2016.

Reeve Janine Paly of Thorhild County said she did not yet want to speak on the issue because twinning Highway 63 has not been discussed by her council. Reeve Brian Hall of Athabasca County said he has raised the issue informally with other councillors and there is support for the idea.

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Premier Danielle Smith has said the province is prioritizing Highway 686. This route, which is still being designed, would connect Fort McMurray to the Peace region. Smith said no decision has been made on fully twinning Highway 63 to Edmonton, but anticipates it will be a debate topic.

A man in northwest Calgary with fentanyl May 8, 2017. DARREN MAKOWICHUK/Postmedia Network Photo by Darren Makowichuk/Postmedia

2023 worst year for drug deaths in Fort McMurray, across Alberta

There were 24 fatal drug poisonings reported in 2023 in Fort McMurray. There were 17 deaths involving opioids, nine involving cocaine, and eight each involved alcohol and methamphetamine. Only one opioid-related death involved a pharmaceutical opiate.

The Alberta government began publicly tracking drug poisoning deaths in 2016. Before 2023, Fort McMurray’s deadliest year for opioid deaths was when 16 people died in 2017. The deadliest year for deaths involving any substance was when 21 people died in 2020.

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Alberta reported 2,051 people died from drug poisonings. Opioids were involved in the deaths of 1,867 people. Most victims were men between the ages of 25 and 49. Fatal drug poisonings involving women grew to nearly 32 per cent of deaths from 24 per cent three years earlier.

Fentanyl was found in more than 93 per cent of deaths across Alberta. Methamphetamine was found in two-thirds of fatal overdoses.

Hunter Baril, press secretary for Alberta’s mental health and addictions minister Dan Williams, said Alberta is “cautiously optimistic” about downward trends reported in early 2024. He praised the opening of recovery centres in Red Deer and Lethbridge, as well as plans to open nine more. He also called Alberta’s Virtual Opioid Dependency Program a success.

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Janet Eremenko, the Alberta NDP critic for mental health and addictions, criticized the province for releasing the data before the Victoria Day long weekend. Friday’s data was the first update since February.

Eremenko called for increased funding to mental health resources and addictions programs focusing on prevention and early intervention, particularly outside Edmonton and Calgary. She also called for the expansion of opioid dependency program clinics and supervised consumption sites.

A mural on the Rivers Casino and Entertainment Centre, formerly known as the Boomtown Casino, in downtown Fort McMurray on March 6, 2022. A grant through the RMWB’s Downtown Revitalization Incentives Program (DRIP) helped cover the costs of the mural and many of the renovations that went into the casino. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network jpg, FM

Council approves DRIP expansion, but concerns raised about costs

Council has approved a $2.4-million expansion of a grant program that improves the look of downtown buildings.

The Downtown Revitalization Program (DRIP) has been used for everything from painting facades and upgrading patios to commissioning murals and starting gardens. As of Tuesday’s council meeting, DRIP has approved $9.1 million for 275 projects at buildings across downtown Fort McMurray.

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Supporters of the program told council the program has been a success since it was approved by council in June 2020. But concerns were raised about the costs of the program and whether it has been a success for bringing people downtown.

Fort McMurray resident Rene Wells argued the program has failed to accomplish its goals, and does not address the root causes of problems like crime or vacancies. He feared DRIP made some recipients dependent on the RMWB for aesthetical improvements, and accused some business owners of benefiting from DRIP while doing well financially.

Wells said council could support downtown’s economy by investing in programs encouraging entrepreneurship, supporting young entrepreneurs and boosting local pride.

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Councillors debated DRIP’s effectiveness, but only Councillor Kendrick Cardinal voted against extending the program.

midnight madness
Justin Shaw of Theatre, Just Because performs his one-character play, The Wrestling Play, at the Fort McMurray Food Festival’s Midnight Madness at Keyano Theatre on Saturday, July 20, 2019. Theatre, Just Because is calling for local performers to pitch small plays, one-character shows, routines and other performances for the inaugural Fort McMurray Fringe Festival on August 31, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Theatre, Just Because announces inaugural Fort McMurray Fringe Festival

The Fort McMurray-based theatre company Theatre, Just Because (TJB) is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the launch of the inaugural Fort McMurray Fringe Festival. The festival promises local artists and performers a chance to give performances that are uncensored and not subject to a jury.

“Fort McMurray has an impressive theatre community and so many cultural groups showing off their arts and dance. We have so much art in the community. A fringe festival is a really great place to bring it all together,” said Bailey Yarkie, TJB’s artistic director.

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“Anyone who is an artist can submit and connect and share and have a ton of fun in one place. I think that’s really beneficial to the community.”

Yarkie feels Fort McMurray’s theatre community lost something with the end of InterPLAY, an arts festival that ran every summer for more than 20 years. It ended in 2013 after its last promoter, Events Wood Buffalo, went bankrupt in 2014.

Yarkie hopes the Fringe Festival will encourage local performers with ideas for smaller pieces, such as one-person plays or burlesque performances.

“If you submit a piece of work, we can’t say no to you. You can submit the absolute craziest thing and we are a kind of place where you can submit this work and share it,” she said. “Artists from all all kinds of walks of life, all avenues and all experiences can submit, be represented and take part in the festival.”

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Tyler Adams of the Wild Boys lunges at Jerry the Jester of KarnEvil of Kaos during Monster Pro Wrestling’s Dirty Deeds at Keyano College’s Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre on May 11, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Hundreds turn out for Monster Pro Wrestling in Fort McMurray

Buckshot Bobby Brake is provincial champion after defending his title in Blake’s hometown during Monster Pro Wrestling’s Dirty Deeds event at Keyano College. Brake defeated Blake Kannon during the main event on May 11.

About 400 people attended Dirty Deeds, which took place while all of Fort McMurray had been warned to prepare for a potential wildfire evacuation. That order would not be issued until May 14. However, the threat of a wildfire was not enough to keep people from enjoying headlocks, leg drops, suplexes or trash talking.

Even though the wrestlers were part of an indie circuit, spectator Douglas Robertshaw said the event was nostalgic. Robertshaw and his friends were the loudest people to cheer and boo the different fights throughout the evening.

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“The people who go to and enjoy wrestling are trying to recapture something from their childhood and attending events like this is like watching Saturday morning cartoons, with a bowl of surgery cereal and a glass of OJ,” said Robertshaw.

“I think we are all a little envious of the people in the ring, doing something we all dreamed about as kids. What’s the most fun about attending is playing your part to make the event fun for the wrestlers and the crowd by being vocal and as animated as possible.”

Suncor Energy’s base plant with upgraders north of Fort McMurray, Alta. on Wednesday September 27, 2017. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network Photo by Vince Mcdermott /Vince Mcdermott/Today Staff

Suncor not rushing to secure additional supply for Base Plant oilsands facilities

It will be more than five years before Suncor Energy Inc. makes any significant investments to secure new bitumen supply.

At a presentation for investors, executives said they believe the company has a number of options when it comes to securing additional sources of bitumen to replace output from its Base Plant oilsands mine, and will take its time to evaluate them.

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Suncor’s Base Plant has a production capacity of 350,000 barrels per day, according to the company’s website, but its Base Plant mine is expected to be largely depleted by the mid-2030s.

To solve its supply problem, Suncor has proposed a new, 225,000 barrel-per-day, open-pit oilsands mine expansion, which would be located adjacent to its existing Base Plant operations. The company has said the project would take four to five years to construct, and could start production in the early to mid-2030s.

However, it remains highly uncertain whether such a project would receive the go-ahead from regulators.

As a backup, Suncor last year bought Total Energies’ stake in the Fort Hills oilsands project for $6.1-billion. Last March, Suncor and the Fort McKay First Nation agreed to explore the possibility of mining bitumen on reserve lands.

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A shotgun, cocaine, fentanyl and items allegedly used for drug trafficking, as seen in a handout photo from Wood Buffalo RCMP following two seizures on May 10, 2024.

Police seize suspected cocaine, fentanyl during drug busts

An early morning traffic stop and an unrelated investigation both lead to police in Fort McMurray seizing a shotgun and what they believe to be cocaine and fentanyl.

Wood Buffalo RCMP say that on May 10 at 4:30 a.m., officers pulled over a vehicle on Thickwood Boulevard as part of an ongoing investigation. During the stop, police found more than an ounce of what is believed to be fentanyl. Police say they also seized other drug paraphernalia.

On the same day at 2:45 p.m., police carried out a search warrant of a Timberlea home as part of a separate drug investigation. During the search, police found more than $11,000 in Canadian currency, more than an ounce of suspected cocaine, a shotgun and drug paraphernalia.

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A photo of Gary Allen Srery, who police in Alberta have linked to the murders of four Calgary women in the 1970s. Srery is not a formal suspect in any other homicides or sexual assaults, but RCMP are asking anyone with information to contact their tip line, 780-509-3306. Photo courtesy Alberta RCMP edm
  • Serial killer identified: Police say an American serial killer who died in 2011 is responsible for the murders of at least four Calgary women in the 1970s. Police believe there may be more victims. Gary Allen Srery came to Canada illegally in 1974 to escape a rape charge in California. He was convicted of a sex crime in B.C. in 1999 and deported to the U.S. in 2003. He was charged with rape in 2008 and died in an Idaho state prison. The four victims are Eva Dvorak, 14; Patricia McQueen, 14; Melissa Rehorek, 20; and Barbara MacLean, 19.
  • Remembering Owen Hart: Owen Hart’s tragic death was 25 years ago this month. The family of the Calgary-born WWE wrestler keep Hart’s name alive with a foundation focusing on helping low-income families with home ownership programs, scholarships, relief during the pandemic and partnering with Amnesty International.
  • Terrorism peace bond: Aimee Lucia Vasconez of Edmonton admitted in court she received military training and hoped to join an ISIS battalion before surrendering to Syrian forces in 2019. She spent the following four years in a displaced persons camp for other ISIS families. Vasconez was one of four women and 10 children repatriated to Canada in April 2023. Her conditions include a ban on travelling, leaving Alberta without permission or using the internet for one year.
  • Joey’s Home: Joey’s Home, a permanent supportive housing project named after one of the Edmonton Oilers greatest fans, is poised for upgrades and expansion thanks to $340,000 from the province. Some of the dollars will also be used to renovate Joey’s Home Mindful Hearts Memory Care Centre in Edmonton. Joey Moss worked for the Oilers and Elks for more than three decades. He was beloved for his hard work and advocacy for people with disabilities. Moss, a long-time resident with Down syndrome, passed away in 2020 at 57.
  • Read up on the politics and culture of Alberta  with Postmedia’s subscriber-exclusive newsletter, What’s up with Alberta? Curated by the National Post’s Tyler Dawson every Tuesday and Thursday.

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