FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Gag-inducing, dirty and tiring work was waiting for the first group of Fort McMurray residents to return to the city Wednesday, a month after a vicious wildfire forced everyone to flee.
Many set about right away to scrub down refrigerators fuzzy with mould that grew after the power was cut or mowing overgrown, dandelion-infested lawns.
Fenton Lovell cried as he drove back into his city. His eyes teared up again when he opened his smelly refrigerator.
“Fort McMurray strong!” he joked.
He was getting the house cleaned and ready so his wife and twin babies can return from Newfoundland. After boosting the dead battery in his pickup truck, he grabbed a welcome kit out of his mailbox and put a “natural gas required” sign in his front window.
Pilar Ramirez spent the night sleeping in the back of a truck in Anzac, about 40 minutes southeast of Fort McMurray.
She was washing the refrigerator, stove elements and windowsills in a house she shares with co-workers at a concrete company.
Her reaction when she first opened the door: “Oh, it’s so disgusting!”
“It smelled terrible, the food. Flies everywhere — and big ones. I said, ‘Oh, my God, what happened here?'”
Dave Chalupa said his fridge was a “bit funky” but he could handle it. The weed-covered lawn, on the other hand, had to be attacked right away.
“This is going to take at least two passes of the lawn mower ’cause, I’m going to choke it right to death.”
The fire destroyed 2,400 structures, nearly 10 per cent of the city, when it ripped through and forced more than 80,000 residents to flee.
The return is being staged. People returning Wednesday lived in areas that were mostly spared by the flames. Residents in harder hit areas are to return in the coming days.
Tammy VanMackelberg said the city looks better than she expected.
“It’s actually nice and green. When you’re in some areas you can’t even really tell there was a fire,” she said. “It’s actually like you just went on a little vacation and came back and your lawn needs to be mowed.”
While the vast majority of downtown was untouched, some scars from the fire were evident.
One home that burned to the ground in Crescent Heights was fenced off. Front doors of some nearby houses were marked with “restricted use” signs.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Allan Fedun, whose house four doors down was fine to go into.
Traffic on the only highway into town was light as the city’s downtown officially reopened. It rained off and on throughout the day.
Billboards and banners that read “Safe Resilient Together” and “We Are Here. We Are Strong” line the streets.
On a bridge over the highway coming into town, two fire truck cranes formed an arch dangling a Canadian, Alberta and municipal flags. Several firefighters waved at people as they drove in, getting honks in return.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley was in Fort McMurray to welcome back the first returning evacuees.
She thanked the crews who have worked to get the city running again — including a bylaw officer who rescued a hamster weeks after the fire and called the pet’s five-year-old owner with the good news.
Notley said stories like that will brighten the tough days ahead as more people come home to see what’s left.
“These are the points of light in the midst of some very, very hard days,” she said.
“And many hard days lie ahead.”