FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Residents returning to their homes in Fort McMurray are tackling stinking refrigerators and grass grown tall and infested with dandelions as the fire-scarred city slowly springs back to life.
Billboards that read “Safe Resilient Together” and “We Are Here. We Are Strong” greeted people as they drive into Fort McMurray. Photo: @PeaceHillsIns.
A steady stream of traffic is moving into the northern Alberta oilsands hub as thousands who fled a wildfire a month ago return to see what’s left.
Fenton Lovell says he cried as he drove in and his eyes teared up again when he opened his fridge.
“Fort McMurray strong!” he joked Wednesday morning.
He’s getting the house cleaned and ready so his wife and twin babies can return from Newfoundland. After boosting the dead battery in his pickup truck, he grabbed a welcome kit out of his mailbox and put a sign reading “natural gas required” in his front window.
Pilar Ramirez spent the night sleeping in the back of a truck in Anzac, about 40 minutes southeast of Fort McMurray.
She got to work cleaning as soon as she got into her downtown house, which she shares with co-workers at a concrete company.
People driving in on the only highway into the area have found the forest on both sides blackened about half an hour out of town. The devastation is apparent from the road just inside city limits and a strong smell of smoke hangs in the air.
Billboards that read “Safe Resilient Together” and “We Are Here. We Are Strong” greet people as they drive in. A huge Canadian flag hangs between the extended ladders of two fire trucks parked on a bridge over the road.
The fire destroyed 2,400 structures, nearly 10 per cent of the city, when it ripped through last month and forced more than 80,000 residents to flee.
Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Wood Buffalo municipality, said he expects between 14,000 and 15,000 people to return Wednesday – the first day of what organizers have planned as a staged re-entry.
“It’s going to be an emotional event when we have those first cars pulling back into the community, because we can all remember when this community left on the evacuation. It was pretty dramatic, but now it’s going to be, hopefully, a joyous event,” Couture said Tuesday.
The Red Cross is prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don’t have their own cars. Donations to the relief agency sit at $112 million, but officials plan to update that figure this week.
Returning residents are being warned that it won’t be business as usual and to bring with them two weeks worth of food, water and prescription medication as crews continue to work to get basic services restored.
Crews have been working to get critical businesses such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies running again. Supplies of some items may be limited in the beginning and the government says some things may need to be rationed.