EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and reporters got an up-close look Monday of what was left of Fort McMurray neighbourhoods burned out by a forest fire.
She says 2,400 buildings were lost in the devastation caused when an “ocean of fire” surrounded the city. But she praised firefighters for saving 25,000 more from what at one point looked like certain destruction.
“We are proud of everybody who worked on this fire,” regional fire chief Darby Allen told media riding on a bus tour through some of the most devastated areas.
“We want to let our citizens know that home is still here. And as soon as we can get you back, we will.”
Notley viewed the same neighbourhoods as part of a separate tour.
Allen said people may be under the impression that most of the city was levelled by flames, but about 85 per cent of the buildings in the city are intact.
However, he said between 40 and 50 per cent of Fort McMurray could have been destroyed if firefighters hadn’t been able to hold back the flames at key points, especially the downtown.
The tour revealed a silent testament to the wildfire that overwhelmed crews last Tuesday and marauded through south and southwest sections of the city.
It left behind scorched skeletal outlines of furniture, vehicles and buildings. A cracked birdbath. The metal outline of a shed. A front doorstep leading to nowhere. Kids’ bikes burned where they were chained up. Metal-topped barbecues on flame-streaked patios.
It was a fire of diabolical whimsy.
Homes that appear not to have been touched now face craters just across the street. Pristine bus stops and mailboxes remain ready for business next to charred ruins.
The dominant colors are blacks, greys, whites and ochre.
The hazy skyline is punctuated by towering light poles and the odd tree: tall, black and twisted with stubby twig arms.
The Super8 motel is gone. Only the signature red-and-yellow sign remains.
Cars and trucks remained torched where they were abandoned when about 80,000 residents grabbed a few belongings and raced for safety.
Now the vehicles are scorched hulks, their paint jobs blistered and cracked, seared by flame. Wheels are burned to blackened hubs, upholstery is consumed to the springs, windows are smashed and dashboards melted to goo have hardened in lava-like droops and swirls.
It’s a world of irregular shapes and fractured lines. Sections of jagged walls and brick rise from black-grey foundations like broken off sections of jigsaw puzzles.
Walls, beams and posts lie folded and twisted on top of one another. Utility meters bend to the left and right. Trees droop. Blown-out top floor windows are open to the sky in both directions.
There is wreckage everywhere.
But there are signs reconstruction has begun.
Teams work on power lines into the city, 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
Notley said Sunday the fight against the fire has stabilized to the point the government can assess damage, eventually lift the mandatory evacuation order and get the city ready for residents to return.
The evacuees are staying in hotels, campgrounds, with friends or at reception centres.
The main one in Edmonton has had to deal with an added problem — about 50 people have fallen ill with a stomach bug.
The wildfire itself remains at about 1,600 square kilometres and has moved within 30 kilometres of the Saskatchewan boundary, but lower than seasonal temperatures have given crews a chance to extinguish hotspots in Fort McMurray.