By Barry Ellsworth
TRENTON, Ont. (AA) - Thousands of victims of a massive wildfire that forced the evacuation of 85,000 residents from Fort McMurray in northern Canada will return to the city Wednesday, nearly a month after fleeing the flames.
About 14,000 will return to the Alberta oil sands fire-ravaged city during day one of a four-day re-entry plan.
But those who lived in the area of the city that sustained the most destruction may have to wait for months because of unsafe toxic levels of ash in the air and soil, including arsenic.
For the same safety reasons, children under the age of 7 will not be permitted to enter Fort McMurray.
Unsafe toxic levels will also prevent as many as 2,000 residents from returning even though their homes were not damaged in the wildfire dubbed “The Beast”.
About 560 homes and 12 apartment complexes housing those residents are contaminated.
“Undamaged homes in certain areas are not safe,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told Global News television earlier this week. They will have to find other places to live “essentially for the rest of the summer”, she said.
Dr. Karen Grimsrud of Alberta Health Services told the news outlet that crews are dispensing a “non-toxic tackifier” -- a spray -- on buildings to stop the ashes from spreading.
The wildfire is still burning out of control but is no longer a threat to the community.
The blaze destroyed 2,400 buildings and as of the end of May had burned approximately 1,437,400 acres. It is considered the largest natural disaster in Canadian history.
According to the Alberta government website that posts ongoing information about fires and Fort McMurray, there are 2,360 firefighters and support staff, 96 helicopters and 279 pieces of heavy equipment battling the fire.
As of (GMT1500) May 31, there were 16 active wildfires in Alberta, but just the one near Fort McMurray remained uncontrolled.