It was an emotional morning for Fort McMurray residents who were allowed to return to their community on Wednesday.
Roadblocks were lifted at around 6 a.m., marking the beginning of the re-entry to the northern Alberta city.
Residents could been seen with tears in their eyes as they witnessed first-hand the damage caused by last month’s wildfires. Ten per cent of residents lost their homes in the fire.
“It’s sad because it was just bringing back memories of when we were leaving and everything was up in flames,” Candace Carey, returning resident, said.
While emotional, Carey said she also felt a sense of relief when she opened the door to her home.
“We’re lucky because we have a home to come back to.”
Zone 1 – Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Gregoire Lake Estates – was scheduled for re-entry Wednesday.
WATCH: A look inside the home of one Fort McMurray resident as he returned for the first time
Andrew Harris returned to his home in the Lower Townsite, which is still standing but suffered smoke and water damage. Harris said it was strange to see the destruction as he drove through the city.
“It just seemed like a movie, like a dream, like you’re looking at it but it doesn’t seem like it’s real. So I don’t think it’s set in yet either,” Harris explained.
After checking on the damage, Harris was going to leave the city again Wednesday evening. He said he won’t return permanently until it’s safe for his young son.
“We’re going to be keeping him out for a little bit. So once it’s nice and safe for him to come back, I’ll be coming back the whole time.”
Global News have crews in Fort McMurray for the re-entry process. You can follow their coverage through the live blog below:
Fort McMurray firefighters put up a special welcome home sign for residents returning to the community. Set up on an overpass heading into the city, firefighters parked two fire trucks and hung a Canadian flag, Alberta flag and Municipality of Wood Buffalo flag.
Watch Below: Fort McMurray firefighters welcome home residents forced out by wildfire
“Today begins a journey more than a month in the making,” Premier Rachel Notley said, “a journey home to Fort McMurray. This journey is possible because of incredibly brave and dedicated first responders who were able to save so much of this city from one of the most destructive wildfires that Alberta – and indeed Canada – has ever seen.”
She thanked everyone in the northern Alberta region for their bravery and patience.
“You have shown tremendous courage under the most difficult of circumstances and you will need every ounce in the days to come,” Notley said. “The road ahead is still a long one.”
Watch below: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake speaks to Gord Steinke on the first day residents start returning to Fort McMurray after a massive wildfire ripped through the community.
Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake promised residents of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways – whose undamaged homes were deemed unsafe due to toxins – a plan is coming soon. During the news conference, she pointed out and praised the firefighters and emergency crews.
“The first line responders… are the dirty and devoted people who just wouldn’t quit,” Blake said. “And because they wouldn’t quit, we’ve got 90 per cent to come back to.”
Bob Couture, director of Emergency Management in the region, called Wednesday’s first phase of re-entry “a huge success… and we want to continue that.”
Whitney Lastiwka lives downtown. She stopped by the reception centre to pick up a cleaning kit before going to her house.
“It is heartbreaking. I was born and raised here and I’ve never seen fire ravage this town. This is bad. This is really bad… praying for the best.”
Still, she was glad to be back in Fort McMurray.
“Very thankful to be back with a house to come back to.”
Once she was back inside her home, it wasn’t as bad as she was expecting. There was not a lot of dust and the freezer was still frozen.
“It looks just exactly how I left it: mad panic,” Lastiwka said.
Officials were expecting between 14,000 and 15,000 people would show up on Wednesday.
“Officials estimate that roughly 7,500 people have arrived to date so far,” the premier said early Wednesday afternoon.
There were vehicles waiting at checkpoints on Highway 63 several hours before they were allowed to enter the city Wednesday morning.
“It’s been a hard month for everybody, right. I got three kids. I’m glad they’re all with me,” Ed O’Keefe said before he was allowed into the city.
By 11 a.m. Wednesday, 30,000 welcome packs had been handed out.
Watch below: Phase one of the voluntary re-entry into Fort McMurray has begun. It’s estimated 7,500 people have already returned to the city to see what they left behind or what remains. For many, it’s been an emotional and busy day. Fletcher Kent has been in the community all day and has the latest from downtown Fort McMurray.
Officials said while residents of other neighbourhoods won’t be turned away, nor prevented from accessing their homes, they’re asking people to respect the phased plan.
“Give us the opportunity to stagger the approach and phase it in,” Couture said. “We’re asking residents to respect that.”
WATCH: GoPro tour of Abasands neighbourhood shows true extend of the fire-caused devastation
People returning in their own vehicles to Fort McMurray Wednesday are being asked to drive safely and be patient.
The RCMP is increasing their presence on highways between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Parking and random camping aren’t allowed alongside highways.
Returning residents are being warned that it won’t be business as usual. They’ve been advised to bring with them two weeks worth of food, water and prescription medication as crews continue to work to get basic services restored.
Premier Rachel Notley is urging residents to brace themselves for what they’ll be coming home to, and to understand it will be a stressful time for many.
Jim Mandeville, senior project manager with Mississauga-based FirstOnSite Restoration, has been in Fort McMurray since May 8 to help critical businesses such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies get running again.
Dozens of FirstOnSite workers have been working long days disposing of spoiled food, cleaning ventilation systems and removing smoky odours from upholstery and carpets.
Mandeville said provincial and municipal officials aren’t underplaying how challenging it will be for residents to return.
“When they say to bring 14 days worth of food and water, they mean it. And when they say people with respiratory conditions shouldn’t come up here, they mean it — and they have a really good reason why,” he said.
“It is not a clean, safe, normal environment that you’re walking into.”
Notley, along with Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake and Bob Courture will speak to the media at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
The dates and communities scheduled for re-entry are as follows:
- Zone 1: Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, Gregoire Lake Estates (June 1)
- Zone 2: Parsons Creek, Stone Creek, Timberlea, Eagle Ridge, Dickinsfield (June 2)
- Zone 3: Thickwood, Wood Buffalo (June 3)
- Zone 4(a): Gregoire, Prairie Creek, Saprae Creek Estates (Friday, June 3)
- Zone 4(b): Grayling Terrace, Draper (June 4)
As of Wednesday morning, the Fort McMurray was 581,695 hectares with a perimetre of about 967 kilometres. On Tuesday, officials said 40 per cent of that perimetre was under control. There are 2,360 firefighters and support staff, 96 helicopters and 279 pieces of heavy equipment battling the blaze.
WATCH: Aerial footage shows Fort McMurray on the day people are returning to their homes
With files from The Canadian Press