Residents returning to their homes in Fort McMurray are tackling smelly refrigerators and grass grown tall and infested with dandelions as the fire-scarred city slowly springs back to life.
A steady stream of traffic is moving into the northern Alberta oilsands hub as thousands who fled a wildfire a month ago return to see what’s left.
Fenton Lovell says he cried as he drove in and his eyes teared up again when he opened his fridge.
“Fort McMurray strong!” he joked Wednesday morning.
One of Mike Maloney’s first tasks was to mow the messy lawn in front of his home while his wife and three kids cleaned inside.
“Everybody’s happy but … it’s sad to see what did burn and some loss there. It’s tragic for those people. But I think, all in all, everybody will survive.”
The roadblocks were lifted at 8 a.m., and government reception centres opened for business.
The forest is blackened about half an hour outside the city on the only highway in and out of the area.
The devastation is apparent from the road just inside the city limits and a strong smell of smoke hangs in the air.
Billboards that read “Safe Resilient Together” and “We are here. We are strong” greet people as they drive in.
The fire destroyed 2,400 structures, nearly 10 per cent of the city, when it ripped through last month, forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee.
Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Wood Buffalo municipality, says they expect between 14,000 and 15,000 people could come.
“It’s going to be an emotional event when we have those first cars pulling back into the community, because we can all remember when this community left on the evacuation, it was pretty dramatic, but now it’s going to be, hopefully, a joyous event,” Couture said.
The Red Cross was prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don’t have their own cars.
Returning residents were warned that it won’t be business as usual and to bring with them two weeks worth of food, water and prescription medication as crews continue to work to get basic services restored.
“We would not do this if it was not safe to do so,” Couture said Tuesday.
Crews have been working to get critical businesses such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies running again. Supplies of some items may be limited in the beginning and the government says some things may need to be rationed.