Fort McMurray residents began an emotional return to their community Wednesday and a local radio station prepared a surprise for the first batch of wildfire evacuees.
“I know you are pumped to get here, but I want to plan something special for you,” said Chris Byrne, who works for a Fort McMurray radio station.
In a video posted Tuesday, Byrne can be seen climbing a ladder to a “Welcome to Fort McMurray” road sign, where he covers the word “to” with a sign that says “home.”
Some of the 88,000 people who fled a devastating wildfire in the northern Alberta city began the first day of staged re-entry Wednesday morning. The fire destroyed roughly 2,400 structures when it ripped through the community last month.
Other signs and billboards were put up to greet the returning Fort McMurray residents as they drove in saying “Safe Resilient Together” and “We are here. We are strong.”
There were vehicles waiting at checkpoints on Highway 63 for several hours before they were allowed to enter early Wednesday morning.
Returning residents told Global News they were both nervous and anxious to get back to their homes and survey any possible damage.
“You got nerves, you don’t know what to expect when you walk in there,” Clayton Langford, who was returning for the first time since he was forced to leave.
“Just like everybody else, we just had to bail out at the last minute. We left everything there,” said Ed O’Keefe, as he waited to enter the city. “We are just going back now to check and see what we have left and see what state our place is in.”
Watch below: The people behind Fort McMurray’s ‘Welcome Bridge’
Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Wood Buffalo municipality, said he expects between 14,000 and 15,000 people could return today.
The Red Cross is prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don’t have their own cars. The relief agency said it has already collected around $112 million in donations, but officials plan to update that figure this week.
Returning residents are being to bring with them two weeks’ worth of food, water and prescription medication as crews continue to work to get basic services restored such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she is planning to be in Fort McMurray as the evacuees begin to return.
“It’s not like, ‘OK, you’re home. See ya. Bye bye,'” she said. “We’re still with them, and I think it’s really important that they hear that from us.”
*With files from the Canadian Press