May 13, 2016 / 4:36 PM / a year ago

Canada's Trudeau tours Alberta oil town ravaged by wildfire

LAC LA BICHE, Alberta, May 13 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday saw the devastation caused by a wildfire that tore through the Alberta town of Fort McMurray and forced several oil sands operations to shut.

The inferno is the first natural disaster to confront Trudeau, whose Liberals took power in November. He promises the federal government will do everything it can to help in a rebuilding effort likely to take years.

“The people of Fort McMurray have been through so much and are still standing strong,” Trudeau said via Twitter. “I‘m looking forward to visiting and being with you today.”

He was seen on television boarding a helicopter in the town for an aerial tour.

Trudeau has faced criticism in Alberta, a province that does not usually vote for his party, for waiting more than a week to survey the damage. The prime minister has said he did not want his visit to interfere with firefighting efforts.

“I think it’s a good thing he’s coming,” said Fort McMurray housekeeper Maureen Pearce at a supply center for evacuees in Lac La Biche, Alberta. “I hope he provides more aid.”

After touring the most damaged areas, Trudeau will hold a news conference with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley at 5:15 p.m. ET (2115 GMT) in the provincial capital of Edmonton.

The 88,000 people who were evacuated hurriedly as the town caught fire are living in temporary accommodation across the province while authorities work to restore power, gas, water and communications.

Local officials say it will be 10 days before they can even produce a plan for resettlement, much less allow people to return to a place where small fires are still erupting.

Pearce, who believes both her Fort McMurray home and the hotel where she works survived the fire, said emergency funds from the Alberta government are helpful.

“But if we’re going to be out of our homes for a month, we’ll need more.”

Evacuees are collecting this week Alberta debit cards loaded with C$1,250 ($966) per adult and C$500 per dependent, as well as Canadian Red Cross aid of C$600 for each adult and C$300 for each child.

The wildfire knocked out nearly half, or 1.07 million barrels per day (bpd), of Alberta’s oil sands capacity. The effort to restart projects is progressing slowly.

A spokesman for the Alberta Energy Regulator said it had four staff in the Fort McMurray region and more traveling there on Friday. They will visit oil sands sites and help operators safely move toward restarting production.

Four major oil firms operating in the area around Fort McMurray have now declared force majeure, a contract clause to remove liability for unavoidable catastrophes.

The fire spans 241,000 hectares (596,000 acres), growing much more slowly than before. The Canadian military, which had provided transport planes and helicopters, said on Thursday the aircraft would start returning home.

Around 350 soldiers though will remain on a state of heightened readiness. (With additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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