Ice jam that caused flooding, evacuation in Fort McMurray melting

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — An ice jam on the Athabasca River is nearly half the size it was earlier this week when it caused major flooding in Fort McMurray and forced 13,000 people from their homes.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo says in a statement that the blockage was 13 kilometres in size Wednesday night, down from 25 kilometres two days before.

Striations in the ice jam caused by the piers of three bridges that cross the Athabasca River in Fort McMurray, Alberta is shown on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Halinda

“Water levels on the Clearwater River, Athabasca River and Hangingstone River continue to fluctuate, but reports show the water level is down across all three rivers in Fort McMurray,” it said.

The flooding in Fort McMurray has led to a second state of local emergency on top of one declared last month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fort McKay First Nation, about 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, has reported a death of a community member related to the flooding.

RCMP said in a news release late Wednesday that officers responded to a request to help two people stranded on the Athabasca River, northeast of the hamlet of Fort McKay.

They say two men were on ATVs on a trail when water levels surged and they ended up in the river. The men were able to hold on to a log until they could be rescued, said police.

Both were taken to hospital in Fort McMurray, but the older man died. Two women, two children and two dogs were also rescued from a nearby cabin and taken to safety.

“We are reminding the public to stay away from all bodies of water, especially during spring melt, as conditions can change and be unpredictable,” said acting Insp. Keith Horwood of the Wood Buffalo RCMP.

Farther north, another 450 residents from Fort Vermilion were evacuated earlier this week due to another ice jam on the Peace River.

“I am happy to announce water levels in the Peace River have receded by 2 1/2 meters,” Mackenzie County Reeve Josh Knelsen said Wednesday in a social media post. “The water levels upstream are dropping which indicated that the jam may have released.

“Water levels along the Peace River will remain high but it is unlikely that the river will spill over the bank again.”

Knelsen said crews have started cleanup efforts, including removal of ice from the road. But they don’t yet have a timeline for residents to return. 

Wood Buffalo officials said they were also assessing damage from the flooding.

“There’s 1,230 impacted structures. At least, that’s the initial analysis,” Mayor Don Scott said Wednesday. “It’s a very significant amount of damage.”

He said that’s almost half the number of buildings and homes lost in a wildfire that forced the evacuation of the entire city in May 2016.

He said the extent of the damage in the floods in downtown Fort McMurray is still unknown.

Officials with the municipality are to hold a virtual community townhall for residents later Thursday. The public livestream is to provide an update on the river breakup and flood.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2020

— By Colette Derworiz in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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