Residents of Fort McMurray begin returning to a city forever changed on Wednesday, nearly a month after flames tore into the northern community, flattening neighbourhoods and forcing one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history.
More than 300 Mounties will be in the city as the first of more than 80,000 residents return. As of 8 a.m., the barricades that have kept people out for weeks will disappear. Environment Canada is calling for a 60-per-cent chance of rain in the Fort McMurray area in the afternoon and evening, with the temperature reaching a high of 18 C.
Jeff Cheecham will be among the first residents to make the long drive through scorched boreal forest, along with his wife and two children. The family of four fled on the morning of May 4 as fast-moving fires bore down on their home in the Fort McMurray First Nation.
While the Cheecham home wasn't damaged in the inferno, the family spent much of Tuesday preparing for the task of cleaning up. Without potable water in the Fort McMurray region and the government warning that gasoline and provisions might be in short supply as residents return, Mr. Cheecham says they're packing food and water for 14 days.
"I'm just looking forward to being home, driving down that old dirt road we live on and letting the dogs out so they can start roaming the yard again," he said in an interview on Tuesday as the family stocked up on supplies in Edmonton.
"I hope that things are back to normal in a week or two after we get back."
The Fort McMurray wildfire, which now covers an area larger than Prince Edward Island, is no longer threatening the community, according to officials.
Like many in the city, the family's excitement as they head home is tinged by their fear of what's been lost. There's also the question of what toxins are still waiting in the burned-out areas – now covered by a thick blanket of resin sprayed by emergency crews to stop toxic ash from blowing onto returning residents.
Melissa Blake, mayor of the municipality that includes Fort McMurray, said the start of re-entry is a big day. "When our citizens return, what they're going to first experience is shock and probably dismay about the loss that we've experienced," she told reporters on Tuesday in Calgary.
Ms. Blake said she and her family are not returning permanently to Fort McMurray until her two sons have completed the school year in Edmonton – although she and her husband will go there on Thursday to check on their house and do some cleaning.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will be in the city to welcome back the first residents. At least one councillor with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has raised concerns about the levels of toxic material from burned homes and has asked for a delay for the re-entry.
Alberta's top emergency response official ruled that out on Tuesday.
"Personally, I would feel quite comfortable to go back," Scott Long, executive director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said. "We didn't work this hard to make sure that people are safe to bring them back to an unsafe area and leave them to their own devices."
Nearly 2,000 residents learned on Monday that they won't be going home any time soon. Their homes were spared by the flames, but thick blankets of ash and toxic concentrations of heavy metals and other harmful substances need to be removed before they can return permanently.
Residents will be allowed in over four days, but those with children under seven years old and people suffering from medical issues have been told to hold off on an immediate return. The main hospital won't be up and running for several weeks.
While business owners have been allowed in early to help restock, there will still be shortages. Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Regional Municipality of Wood, said grocery stores, for instance, won't have full shelves.
"The basic essential services will be there. The grocery stores and the gas stations are slow to getting stock back up," Mr Couture told reporters. "It's not just the stock in the stores. It's the people who operate the stores. They live in our community. They've got to go home and deal with the fridge and the kids, to get back living."
With a report from Jeffrey Jones