Fort McMurray homecoming: 'Hopefully, a joyous event'

Re-entry day for Fort McMurray residents who fled forest fire nearly one month ago

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — It’s the day that thousands of residents of Fort McMurray have been waiting for.

Residents of some neighbourhoods in the northeastern Alberta city are being allowed to return today at 8 a.m. — the road blocks will be lifted and government reception centres will be open for business.

Nearly a month ago, a raging wildfire destroyed 10 per cent of the city and forced more than 80,000 residents — the entire population — to evacuate.

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 is prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don’t have their own cars.

Returning residents are being 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.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley plans to be in Fort McMurray when the first evacuees return because she says the city will not be the same one they left.

“It’s not like, ‘OK, you’re home. See ya. Bye bye,”’ she said.

“We’re still with them, and I think it’s really important that they hear that from us.”

The re-entry is happening in stages this week, with only people in the Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation and Gregoire Lake Estates allowed to come back on Wednesday.

The RCMP say they will have a helicopter in the air to monitor traffic, and have asked people to be patient and to drive carefully on Highway 63, the main road in and out of the region.

There will also be extra officers in town to help with traffic.

“People are anxious to come back, get their families, get their community back on, get their business back going and get this community into what it was once before,” Couture said.