Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees trickle back home, face cleanup

Fort McMurray wildfire destroyed about 10 per cent of the city’s homes

Fort McMurray wildfire

Fort McMurray wildfire evacuees who arrived back in the northern Alberta city were welcomed home by local firefighters.  Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo photo.

By Nia Williams

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, June 1 (Reuters) – Evacuees who fled the massive Fort McMurray wildfire in early May began to trickle back into the Canadian oil city on Wednesday, some pleased to find their homes in good shape, while others faced a major cleanup.

More than 90,000 residents fled the remote northern Alberta city as the fire hit four weeks ago, burning entire neighborhoods. Officials expected 14,000 to 15,000 to return on Wednesday as a two week staged re-entry begins.

Some residents were visibly delighted with the state of their homes after their hasty flight amid towering flames and plumes of smoke nearly a month ago. About 10 percent of the city’s homes were destroyed.

“It’s amazing. The ice is still in my fridge, it doesn’t even smell like smoke,” said Dawson Kohl, 47, who rents the top floor of a house downtown. Kohl had been staying in a work camp nearby and was returning home for the first time.

The blaze was a blow to a community already reeling from a two-year oil price slump. It shuttered more than a million barrels per day of crude production, though some facilities have resumed operations.

Scorched trees lined Highway 63, the only route into the city. On one overpass, a huge Canadian flag hung between two fire trucks. Large blue billboards along the road welcomed residents home.

“I expected to come home to a rotten fridge and a whole lot worse. We are pretty lucky,” Kohl added.

Others were not so fortunate.

One Crescent Heights resident, who declined to be named, had two bulging garbage bags piled outside his door and said he anticipated days of cleaning ahead.

Authorities have told those returning to bring two weeks’ worth of food, water and prescription medication. Returnees have also been told to scrub walls, and clean all clothing and bedding, upholstery of items that remained in their houses during the evacuation.

The area is under a boil water advisory and the local hospital’s capabilities are limited. Some stores were open on Wednesday morning, and there was still smoke in the air.

Some 2,000 residents who had expected to return this week were told on Monday that they should not go back because of risks posed by debris and contaminants. Among them was Elsie Knister, 63, and her neighbor Mary Lindsey McNutt, 33.

“I have panic attacks, there’s water damage, there are toxins in my furniture and my cupboards, and under the floor,” Knister said. “I am scared of everything right now, and I am going to have to deal with it one day at a time.”

The pair had been staying in Edmonton and moved north to the Wandering River evacuee camp over the weekend in preparation for their return. They said they were not sure where to go next.

“I feel they are bringing people back in here way too quickly,” McNutt said. “My family in Nova Scotia are saying why don’t you come home for the summer? If we are displaced until August or September I will probably get on a plane.”

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Calgary and Topher Seguin in Fort McMurray; Editing by Alan Crosby)

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