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article imageFirst residents return to fire-ravaged Canadian city

By Cole Burston (AFP)     Jun 1, 2016 in World

The first convoys of weary, anxious residents returned to wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray on Wednesday, a month after they were forced to flee the Canadian oil city due to the inferno.

Physically-exhausted and worried about what had become of their homes, the returnees were welcomed by a giant Canadian flag tied to the ladders of two firetrucks and billboards that read "Together we will rebuild" and "We are here, we are strong."

"To the people of Fort McMurray heading home -- we will be with you every step of the way," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a Twitter message.

Up to 15,000 residents were expected to return in an initial wave, their vehicles packed with food, water, gasoline and other necessities, after being told to expect supply shortages.

The rest of the nearly 100,000 forced to evacuate the city and surrounding villages on May 3 are scheduled to follow in staggered caravans over the next two weeks, officials said.

Abandoning hotels, campsites and emergency shelters that housed them over the last month, the first cars and trucks took to the road starting as early as 5 am (1100 GMT), as soon as police brought down barricades, an AFP journalist witnessed.

Burnt out vehicles and other objects remain in the back of a downtown home in Fort McMurray  Alberta...
Burnt out vehicles and other objects remain in the back of a downtown home in Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 1, 2016
Cole Burston, AFP

Police monitored traffic flows and ambulances were put on standby along the mostly barren 500-kilometer (310-mile) highway from the provincial capitial Edmonton to Fort McMurray.

Rest stops were also set up along the route.

As they trickled back into Fort McMurray, returnees found a devastated community that will need a long time to rebuild, littered with burnt-out dwellings and surrounded by scorched forests.

The city had experienced rapid growth in recent decades as oil sands production to the north expanded dramatically, attracting workers from across Canada and around the world.

But it fell on hard times last year due to the oil rout, when prices tumbled from $100 to less than $50.

After the fire, streets normally lined with pickup trucks are now eerily quiet. Lights shine from unoccupied homes after electricity was restored.

The downtown was unscathed and most city services have been restored, except potable water. Most stores were re-stocked before residents' re-entry.

Firefighters and RCMP officers greet Fort McMurray residents from an overpass on Highway 63 just out...
Firefighters and RCMP officers greet Fort McMurray residents from an overpass on Highway 63 just outside Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 1, 2016
Cole Burston, AFP

Three hard-hit neighborhoods, however, have been fenced off by a 30-kilometer (19-mile) enclosure. The few homes undamaged by the fires here were deemed unsafe for habitation this week after tests of air, soil and ash revealed chemical and heavy metal contamination.

Nearby on the edge of seared trailer park, a deer was spotted just after dawn prancing back into the blackened forest.

Elsewhere a man carried boxes and luggage from his truck into his undamaged home, while a few blocks away another man inspected a charred shed in his backyard. The flames had miraculously stopped a few feet from his house.

"Getting life back to a degree of normalcy in the immediate (future) is the key, and obviously for those people who have lost their homes tragically it is to make sure they have the supports they need," Scott Long, head of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told a press conference on the eve of the repatriation.

The fire remains out of control. But it has moved away from populated areas, while growing only minimally in the last few days to more than 580,000 hectares (1.4 million acres).

Some 1,700 firefighters, including teams from South Africa and the United States, continue to battle the blaze, assisted by water bombers and heavy equipment.

Smoke has largely dissipated in the city, raising local air quality to safe levels.

Service Master cleaners make their way to a bus to be sent to help clean up smoke damage inside a ma...
Service Master cleaners make their way to a bus to be sent to help clean up smoke damage inside a mall in Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 1, 2016
Cole Burston, AFP

But Fort McMurray returnees were still urged to wear rubber boots, masks and clothing that covers arms and legs when cleaning up to avoid coming in contact with any contaminated ashes.

People with respiratory problems, the elderly and children under seven years old looking to return were asked to wait until at least June 21, when the local hospital will be fully operational.

Oil sands facilities to the north, meanwhile, are scheduled to bring production back online by week's end.

Canada is the world's fifth largest petroleum producer.

Companies have reported no damage to oil sands infrastructure, but had been forced to cut production by 1.2 billion barrels per day after temporarily evacuating workers as a precaution.

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