UPDATE 5-Canada wildfire evacuees get tentative return date

Wed May 18, 2016 5:57pm EDT
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(Adds details on oil sands operations)

By Nia Williams and Eric M. Johnson

CALGARY, Alberta May 18 (Reuters) - Evacuees who fled a wildfire in northern Alberta two weeks ago may be allowed to return home as soon as June 1, officials said on Wednesday, as the massive blaze kept oil production shuttered north of Fort McMurray.

Poor air quality in the Alberta city still poses a serious threat, officials said, delaying the return of the more than 90,000 people who were evacuated from the region on May 3 and 4, as the uncontrolled wildfire breached the city limits.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley said that re-entry would begin on June 1, if all safety conditions were met, with the return to be staged over two weeks. She warned that people with health issues, including pregnant women, should not return.

"The air quality issues we've had have set the recovery work back a bit, but progress is being made," Notley told reporters, adding the city will initially only have basic services and a boil water advisory will remain in place until the end of June.

Schools will remain closed until September, with all students moving up a grade despite not finishing their current school year, while the local hospital is not expected to be fully operational until mid-June.

The fire was largely under control in the city by last Wednesday, but authorities warned residents that it would not be safe to return until electricity and other key services were restored. And a shift in direction this week has moved the fire back toward the city.

The air quality health index, usually measured on a scale of 1-10, hit 51 on Wednesday morning, before improving to 11.   Continued...