On the corner of Franklin Avenue and Hardin Street in downtown Fort McMurray, a familiar noise rings out.
Someone with a large diesel truck accelerates. The engine roars and drowns out Mayor Melissa Blake as she tries answering a question on how reentry has progressed since the wildfires.
Blake briefly pauses and without missing a beat, describes municipal recovery efforts as “a delicate balance.”
On this corner, Fort McMurray appears well on the way to recovery. The trucks are back; most businesses have re-opened. Many have signs hanging in their windows welcoming residents home or offering “fire sales.” There’s energy once again in a city known for producing energy.
Fort McMurray is not normal, though. It won’t be for a long time. Turn your head slightly and you’ll see blackened trees scarring the hills on either side of the city.
The wildfire destroyed 2,400 buildings.
Watch below: A selection of videos in our ongoing coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfires
What’s left of entire neighbourhoods remains coated with a white substance called tackifier. It’s meant to keep the wind from blowing toxic ash through the city. It also leaves destroyed homes looking even more surreal and eerie than they already were.
Evacuees may be home but one month after their return, they continue to wonder when their community will start to seem normal again.
Some are angry over the efforts, too.
“They just give you nothing,” said Sue Clarke, talking about officials with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).
“They just totally skirt subjects. They don’t want to answer questions. It’s just been totally horrific.”
Sue Clarke and her husband, Tom, live in Beacon Hill. Their home is one of the few in the area that was not destroyed by fire.
In fact, the house is fine.
“We’ve gone through our home and we thank God through a miracle, we have no damage other than a rotten fridge and a rotten deep freeze,” Sue Clarke said.
Every day, the Clarkes go to their house but they can’t stay. Beacon Hill, along with Abasand and Waterways, is restricted. Tests found toxins in the soil and debris. That means the Clarkes and every other resident must leave their home every night.
“From eight to eight it’s normal. It’s the other eight to eight that’s frustrating when we can’t stay,” Tom Clarke said.
The Clarkes understand the reasons for the restrictions but they want answers from the municipality.
When can they go home? Why can’t they choose to sleep there? Should they rent something else? If so, for how long?
“It’s hard to get a place in Fort McMurray that allows pets. Those that do want a long-term lease. So until we know, we can’t commit,” Tom Clarke said.
Clarke said he has recently received one timeline from the RMWB – although it’s not the one he wants. He was told it will be two more weeks before he and his wife find out when they might be allowed to stay home.
In Saprae Creek, Tara Bennett has similar complaints, although her situation is very different.
The May wildfire destroyed her home. She, her husband, their child and a live-in caregiver now live in a trailer in front of the burnt-out foundation.
Bennett has already arranged for a new home to be built. She just needs the damaged foundation dug up and hauled away.
She says the municipality twice denied her family a demolition permit. Then, after her contractor complained at a city council meeting, she got the permit.
“Nobody knew what steps to take,” Bennett said. “Everyone had to get their ducks in a row. It’s been challenging. Very hard.”
Her contractor, J. Paul McLeod, owns Vancon Services Inc. McLeod feels the RMWB isn’t putting enough emphasis on making sure local contractors get the recovery work in Fort McMurray. He wonders if that process interfered with Bennett’s attempts at acquiring a demolition permit.
Insurers have hired disaster management company SPECS to oversee the demolition of most of the fire-damaged properties.
SPECS is looking for a prime contractor to do the demolition work. However, that contractor must be large enough to take on the task. Many Fort McMurray companies say those requirements mean large, outside companies will get an edge.
Nothing has been finalized but some of the smaller companies fear this uncertainty may be holding up the permitting process.
“It disturbs me that we didn’t look to help Fort McMurray,” McLeod said. “We looked to help a lot of people who weren’t from Fort McMurray.”
The RMWB’s mayor says she sympathizes with what residents are going through now.
“First they have my absolute sympathy. It’s got to be an untenable situation. We recognize that,” Blake said.
The RMWB is trying to balance a lot.
Provincial health officials have decided to restrict access to the hardest hit communities, not the regional municipality. Cleanup is hampered by recovery efforts. Residents who lost their homes are still trying to sift through the remains of their houses.
While that process continues, demolition cannot begin. There’s fear the toxic ash may endanger anyone on site.
A recovery task force has been established but it’s still early in its mandate.
Through it all, the mayor promises to help.
“Our hearts are broken for them but it’s not good enough to have a broken heart. We have to pledge our commitment to them.”