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Heavy equipment mechanic and former miner Ken Smith was among the thousands of Fort McMurray residents back in the fire-ravaged city this week.
Smith, president of Unifor local 707A, represents 3,400 Suncor Energy employees who work at facilities just north of Fort McMurray.
A staged residential re-entry into the city began on Wednesday. By Thursday evening, up to 40,000 people were able to return to their homes, however, officials expected only about half that number back in the city.
For Smith, arriving back at his Timberlea home on Thursday evening after a month in Edmonton was pretty emotional.
"As I was approaching the town, there was a strong odour…of char and burnt wood.
"We were getting [rain] showers and the sun was out. It was kind of steamy and that odour was there," Smith said.
His wife, who suffers from respiratory issues, has returned to the couple's home city of Bathurst, New Brunswick for the summer. She relocated with Smith three years ago for his job with Suncor. When they fled south from Fort McMurray with two other friends on May 2, the group were forced to spend a night in their vehicles on the side of the road.
"We were very close to the fires for parts of that drive so it was a pretty frightening night."
Seeing the damage caused by the fire had been "devastating," Smith said.
"Entire subdivisions have literally been burnt flat." Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are the worst-hit areas of the city.
The presence of emergency crews for those returning has been invaluable, Smith said.
"They were waving to us as we were coming in and people were blowing horns and it struck me just how real it was."
The Canadian and Alberta flags, along with a huge welcome banner, has also been hung from the Highway 63 over-pass closest to the city from the south.
"It was really a powerful moment seeing them there, and they are still out there today welcoming people back into the city."
Working to provide support for his members -- some of whom were evacuated twice from Suncor facilities about 40 minutes north of Fort McMurray -- continues to be Smith and his executive's main priority.
"We expect to be back at normal operations with people not in camp and living in their homes in the city by June 14."
"There is a skeleton crew out there that are doing start up. That's being ramped up and there's a lot more people going in [over] the next couple of days."
Unlike some of the other tar sands workers, Suncor employees do not operate on a fly-in/fly-out basis, Smith said.
Most live with their families in Fort McMurray and are dealing with stress from damaged homes and uprooted loved ones.
In addition to this, members who continued to work as part of basic operations at various points in the past month have had to stay in camps, as well as be evacuated on two different occasions when the fire threatened facilities.
"Being separated from their families for six or seven days…when they go off to camp works for some people, but not for others. There are a lot of issues around that. People say their lives are kind of in turmoil," he said.
The union would also be following up on air quality safety standards -- set by the Oil Sands Safety Association (OSSA) -- and evacuation plans for workers.
Smoke that drifted from the fire into Suncor facilities was thick enough at one point that the dusk to dawn lights switched on in the middle of the day, Smith said.
"[It then] turned an orange-red haze. During that period our air quality was still well within the safe range [set by OSSA].
"We know that Suncor followed the rules, they monitored the way they were supposed to and they followed the standards." However, those who continued to work were "very concerned" about the air conditions, he said.
The union and the company, which began collective bargaining earlier this year, also plan to return to negotiations as soon as operational matters are settled.
Meanwhile, other energy companies with facilities near Fort McMurray are gradually increasing operations. Husky Energy resumed operations last week, while Athabasca Oil, Shell Canada and Inter Pipeline Energy restarted work at facilities several weeks ago.
A spokesman from Syncrude said the company were assessing conditions of its facilities and hoped to resume production later this month.
The phased residential re-entry into Fort McMurray is expected to be completed by June 21.
Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.
Photo: flickr/Premier of Alberta
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