The waste services manager for an Alberta town ravaged by fire says his workers are racing against the clock to deal with refrigerators that are being dumped by returning residents.
Tom Moore estimates there could be up to 4,000 refrigerators and freezers that will be left on the curbs in Slave Lake this weekend.
Many are full of food that's been rotting since the town was evacuated two weeks ago. And while he said in an interview Saturday that the smell isn't too bad now, he figures that could change if they're left for another 48 hours.
"I contracted with a bunch of local people and said we'll do whatever we've got to do to get 'er done quick," said Mr. Moore, speaking on a cellphone at the community's landfill.
The job requires more than just gathering the units with a truck and pushing them into a hole.
First, workers have to drain the coolant. This can be done without opening the fridges and freezers, Mr. Moore explains, because the coils are on the back and can be accessed without opening the doors.
Next, he says backhoes are used to tip the units over so the stinky contents fall out and can be buried. Fire hoses are then used to rinse out the insides.
But there's still one final job - the units must be baled for shipping to Edmonton where they will be recycled.
"To be honest, the smell has been not that bad at all, but we have masks available for anyone who needs them," Mr. Moore said.
"Maybe it's because I work in waste all the time and am used to it, but my guys say it's not that bad."
Close to a third of the buildings in Slave Lake were destroyed when a wind-fuelled wildfire swept through the town on May 15.
Officials have only just begun to allow residents to return in the last few days.
Officials have instructed the residents to put their refrigerators and freezers on their sidewalks with the doors duct-taped shut so they can be picked up by town staff.
Mr. Moore says it's important to deal with the all the units quickly, because the smell of rotting food attracts bears.
He says it's hard to know for sure exactly ho many refrigerators and freezers his workers will be dealing with. He says his own family's refrigerator was OK when he returned home Friday, noting that they were able to save it by cleaning it with vinegar and water.
But other people have no choice but to dump their appliances and buy new ones.
"We use a lot of Tupperware for a lot of stuff. So that saved us," Mr. Moore explained about his own family's good fortune.
Even though many people who returned home to Slave Lake were greeted with the smell of rotting food when they opened their front doors, it was still a relief to finally be back home.
"I am thrilled to welcome home the residents of Slave Lake," the town's mayor, Karina Pillay-Kinnee said in a news release on Saturday.
Ms. Pillay-Kinnee offered her thanks to the many people who weren't from Slave Lake, but who she said still worked tirelessly to help residents get home.
There are approximately 1,400 emergency and support personnel who are remaining in Slave Lake to help the community as it recovers, the town says. More than half the homes in the area had gas and electricity restored by Saturday.
Alberta Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Jonathan Denis said the province is working toward providing better temporary housing for essential workers who've returned to Slave Lake.
Mr. Denis said the goal is to move essential workers from shorter-term accommodations like hotels to longer-term housing, where he says they can feel more at home and be with their families.