FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. -- A scarred city that has sat largely vacant for the last month is slowly springing back to life.

A steady stream of traffic is moving into Fort McMurray Wednesday morning as thousands of people who fled a wildfire at the start of May return to see what's left.

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. A massive Canadian flag is hung between the extended ladders of two fire trucks parked on a bridge over the road.

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, said he expects between 14,000 and 15,000 people to return Wednesday -- the first day of a what organizers are hoping will be a staged re-entry.

"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 Tuesday.

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.

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.

"We would not do this if it was not safe to do so," Couture said.

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 police kept a close watch on the speed of drivers as they headed home.

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."

Here's what returning residents have been advised to bring with them:

  • Enough food, drinking water and prescription medication to last up to 14 days. A boil-water advisory continues to be in effect and stores are still being cleaned up and restocked.
  • N-95 dust masks to reduce smoke exposure. The masks are available at hardware stores and one per household will be included in the Canadian Red Cross cleaning kits available at information centres.
  • Appropriate clothing, including boots, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves.
  • A camera to document any damage for insurance purposes.
  • A flashlight, as some homes may not have power.

Here's a list of who gets in when:

Wednesday: People from Fort McMurray's Lower Townsite, including the downtown, as well as from the nearby communities of Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation and Gregoire Lake Estates.

Thursday: People living on the north side of Fort McMurray in the neighbourhoods of Parsons Creek, Stone Creek, Timberlea, Eagle Ridge and Dickensfield.

Friday: Residents of north-central and south Fort McMurray in the neighbourhoods of Thickwood, Wood Buffalo, Gregoire, Prairie Creek and Saprae Creek Estates.

Saturday: There are different scenarios for residents of south-central Fort McMurray in some of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods. People from Grayling Terrace and Draper are to return as scheduled. However, as many as 2,000 people with undamaged homes in Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill have been told it is unsafe for them to move back right away.

Government officials expect the return for most evacuees to be completed by June 15.