By Robert Tuttle
Just as people were sheltering at home to avoid the virus, a 25-kilometer (16-mile) natural dam created by melting ice on the Athabasca River has flooded the city’s downtown and some nearby areas in northern Alberta, Jason Nixon, the province’s environment and parks minister, said at a press conference Tuesday.
More than 13,000 people have been evacuated to hotels, work camps and private homes. Because of the pandemic, communal evacuation centers in public buildings couldn’t be used to house evacuees, who must instead be sent to hotels, Nixon said.
Fort McMurray, once a boom town of more than 100,000 people, was made wealthy by the jobs created from the world’s third-largest crude reserves. The city’s entire population was evacuated for more than a month during the 2016 wildfires, which burned down thousands of homes.
Since then, Fort McMurray’s population has fallen amid a near halt in oil sands development due to pipeline shortages and depressed crude prices, a situation that was made worse by the impact of the pandemic on energy demand.
While the number of infected people in the town is relatively small, the outbreak poses a potential risk to work at the oil sands, the lifeblood of the town’s economy. The city has registered 20 cases since the outbreak began, and dozens from other parts of Canada have also fallen ill after working at the nearby Imperil Oil Ltd. Kearl oil sands site.
The phenomenon known as ice jam is not uncommon on the Athabasca River, but this year it was too large to be cleared through explosives or other artificial means, Nixon said. Only more warm weather will cause the ice to break up and clear.
Another area in northern Alberta along the Peace River was also hit by extreme flooding caused by an ice jam. The hamlet of Fort Vermilion and neighboring areas suffered flooding as well with about 446 people evacuated to hotels in the town of High Level, as well as to private accommodations.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said that warming weather should cause the ice jams to start dislodging in the next 72 hours.