FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta – Residents of the Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray began cleaning up their homes and property Wednesday as people who fled a massive wildfire at the start of May returned to see what's left.
The fire destroyed 2,400 structures, or about 10 percent of the city, when it ripped through last month, forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee. Officials expected thousands of evacuees to return to the city Wednesday — the first day of a staged re-entry. Residents in areas that were not damaged were asked to come first. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said about 7,500 arrived in the city Wednesday.
One of Mike Maloney's first tasks was to mow the messy lawn in front of his home while his wife and three kids cleaned inside.
"It's sad to see what did burn," he said. "It's tragic for those people. But I think, all in all, everybody will survive."
Pilar Ramirez spent the night sleeping in the back of a truck in Anzac, Alberta 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. Her reaction when she first opened the door: "Oh, it's so disgusting!"
"It smelled terrible, the food. Flies everywhere — and big ones. I said, 'Oh, my God, what happened here?'"
People driving in on the only highway into the area 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" greeted people as they drove in. A huge Canadian flag hung between the extended ladders of two fire trucks parked on a bridge over the road.
Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the regional emergency operations center, said everything has been orderly and according to plan. The Red Cross was prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don't have their own cars.
Returning residents were 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. Workers have been laboring 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 said some things may need to be rationed.
Notley said the day was not one for celebration and noted years of work are ahead.
"To the people of Fort McMurray heading home - we will be with you every step of the way," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.