Sounds of children playing are missing from Krista Poirier's street as she returns to a neighbourhood transformed by flames. Nearby homes where she once chatted with neighbours are destroyed, as are lampposts, bicycles and trucks, all covered by a ghostly layer of white resin, applied to keep toxic dust down.
The fire that decimated Fort McMurray a month ago stopped 20 metres from the house she shares with her husband, Martin – so close that the vinyl siding of the garage melted and buckled in the heat. While their home of 10 years escaped the worst of the damage, Ms. Poirier said the smell of smoke is too overwhelming to move back in with their three young children.
"You walk upstairs and right away you just get a headache," she said. The strong smell has left an undetermined workload ahead. Insurance adjusters will have to determine how deep into the bones of the home the smoke damage spread.
Fort McMurray's re-entry accelerated on Thursday as 20,000 people were expected to return to the Northern Alberta city, more than double the number of residents who made the trek the day before. The larger influx, many returning to neighbourhoods containing pockets of destruction, tested efforts to support returnees and raised questions about the health risks posed by fire damage.
Residents returned to neighbourhoods that were previously off limits, discovering damage that was not visible from the outside. They could previously only check online to determine if their homes still stood. Mr. Poirier said it was disorienting, looking at the wreckage across the street. "With the houses gone, we're trying to remember who lived where," he said. "It's just amazing that our house is still here. The house behind us is melted."
As waves of residents return, some of the problems are more mundane. On the city's main downtown strip, a TV repair shop is now carrying refrigerators, responding to the sudden need. Hundreds of refrigerators have been pushed to the curb across the city as returning residents find appliances full of mould.
Many personal circumstances are vastly more trying. Jenny Lavallee and Tony Muswagon were fortunate to find no damage to their two-storey house a few doors down from a wrecked row of homes. Not far away, though, the house owned by Ms. Lavallee's son, Ricky White, burned to the ground. Mr. White, who runs a trucking company, would say little about it, other than he's certain he will rebuild.
In his garage, Mr. Muswagon confided that he believes the enormity of the tragedy is only now hitting Mr. White, who has spent the past weeks working to get the city back in shape for returning residents. Mr. White's own family has remained in Edmonton.
Ms. Lavallee said she feels some guilt about returning home to live when so many others are unable. "We can sleep in our own bed tonight. A lot of people can't," she said.
While smoke and haze continue to linger near the city, the fire situation has stabilized. The front of the blaze is now about 80 kilometres away in Saskatchewan. Due to heavy rains, firefighters said helicopters hadn't been called in to drop water for two days – a sign of how well the ground effort was advancing to beat back the flames.
However, they cautioned that a warm, dry day could spark a new inferno that could potentially blanket Fort McMurray in smoke. The wildfires burning around the northern oil sands capital now cover more than 5,800 square kilometres, larger than Prince Edward Island.
Officials warned on Thursday that recreational drones had been spotted by wildfire crews working near the city. A helicopter pilot said in an interview that at least one helicopter was forced to swerve to avoid a potentially deadly collision with a drone.
The Red Cross has raised $125-million to help with recovery efforts in Fort McMurray, a figure expected to increase substantially once eligible donations are matched by the federal and Alberta governments.
Much of the money has already been transferred to evacuees or used to pay for food, shelter beds and cleanup kits. The remaining funds will be used to help pay for the community's years-long recovery, the organization says.
Residents of three neighbourhoods that were almost completely destroyed by the flames will be granted access as of June 10. However, officials have warned that people will find very little where their homes once stood. The powerful flames destroyed everything that wasn't in a fireproof safe, including jewellery.