Jason Upton had watched in his rear-view mirror as flames raged into Fort McMurray, Alta., but 29 days after the mass evacuation of residents he wasn't prepared for the devastation now so obvious in his hometown. His house near the downtown hospital only narrowly avoided the blaze.
"Coming down the hill toward downtown and looking at what the fire did was shocking. I knew that there was damage, but the fire just decimated the side of the hill," Mr. Upton, a real estate agent, said on Wednesday, moments after arriving home for the first time since authorities lifted the evacuation order that forced more than 80,000 residents from the city in early May.
The green on the hills that ring Fort McMurray's core is largely gone, replaced by broken, blackened conifers covered in ash and fire retardant.
A house burned down only two doors away from Mr. Upton's place. The flames stopped after burning through his next door neighbour's wooden fence. "It got close," he said.
Mr. Upton was among the first to return to the northern Alberta city that is still fresh from one of Canada's worst natural disasters. Motorists were greeted with highway signs celebrating their resilience. Shows of solidarity abounded, even against backdrops of ruined neighbourhoods and mostly just basic services available. Several firefighters and paramedics took positions on an overpass to hoist flags on fire-engine ladders and wave at people who had travelled home from all over Alberta.
However, despite assurances by officials that large parts of Fort McMurray are ready for the return of its citizens, not everyone is satisfied. Allan Vinni, a city councillor, is among those worried about toxic air and water in the aftermath of the blaze and the efforts to tame it. He is not returning from his temporary home in Edmonton yet.
"I believe a lot of people are putting their health ahead of an early return and I will include myself in that list. I have serious concerns about the health risks and I am disappointed that the media, at least the traditional media, has not picked up on this aspect of the story," Mr. Vinni told The Globe and Mail. "Social media is certainly all over the health story."
A pink notice was pasted onto the door of Mr. Upton's neighbours when they returned on Wednesday, warning that the home should be vetted by professionals to determine the level of contaminants inside. Mr. Upton and his partner, Melanie Galea, received no such notice on their place, just a few metres away. Ms. Galea said that she was concerned about the health risks.
"What concerns us is our health when they remove that debris," she said, pointing at the nearby burned home, covered in a layer of resin applied by emergency crews to keep the potentially toxic ash from spreading.
In the coming three days, more neighbourhoods will be reopened for residents. This week, about 2,000 people from three communities learned that their re-entry is delayed because of contamination concerns. Their homes were close to those destroyed by fire.
There are other worries. Emotional turmoil is expected to be widespread as the immensity of the disaster and the amount of rebuilding ahead hits home, especially among those who return to more severely damaged neighbourhoods. Authorities are encouraging people to make use of counselling services provided at local information centres.
Officials expected bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 63, the main thoroughfare into the city, but it was light on Wednesday morning with a smoky haze still hanging in the air. By midday, as many as 7,500 of the more than 80,000 evacuees had returned, and Premier Rachel Notley said she expected 15,000 by day's end.
The Premier cautioned that much toil lay ahead.
"Today is not the end of the story. It is not a return to normal life and it's not yet a celebration," Ms. Notley told reporters at the city's emergency centre. "There's still a lot of work to recover and rebuild Wood Buffalo. This will be the work of years, not weeks," she said, referring to the regional municipality.
While only some businesses were operating, the shelves of downtown stores and supermarkets contained the needed essentials and a range of fresh produce, although some rows were bare. And gasoline, while not rationed, was in short supply.
Returnees often faced refrigerators filled with rotten and mouldy food. Many residents will be forced to throw the smelly appliances out. Another big risk is smoke damage inside houses.
Among the first calls residents will make will be to their insurance companies. Up to 900 insurance adjusters have already arrived in Fort McMurray and by the end of the week, the number will increase to 1,500, said Bill Adams, vice-president with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
During the last major disaster in Alberta, the devastating floods of 2013, much of the loss was not insurable, being damage from overland flooding. This created extra headaches for residents and the provincial government. Mr. Adams said this situation is different.
"It will be the flip side of that. Fire is a standard peril in home insurance policies, so people have a number of benefits," he said. "These include additional living expenses for the time they are out of their homes."
Some residents were comforted by commonplace acts of neighbourliness. A neighbour had already trimmed Ed and Eileen Reider's yard before they arrived home. The couple had spent the past month in their motorhome outside Slave Lake, Alta., worried about their home.
"We just walked in, saw how the house smelt, how the fridge was doing and we're really doing good," said Mr. Reider, who moved to Fort McMurray nearly 50 years ago. Half of the Popsicles he left in the freezer never thawed despite the city losing power during the inferno. The discovery brought a smile to his face.
Bob Couture, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's head of emergency management, lauded crews who spent the past weeks preparing the city for repopulation, saying many had worked 18-20 hour days.
"It is emotional. As those cars were coming up this morning, you could feel it in the operations centre: 'Wow, we're pulling this off and it's been done safely and our residents are coming home,'" he said.
With a report from Kelly Cryderman