'We'll be better than ever': Fort McMurray evacuees returning home
Christina Commisso and Taline McPhedran, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, June 1, 2016 9:05AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 1, 2016 5:29PM EDT
The first wave of evacuees returning to Fort McMurray on Wednesday are describing feelings of joy and anxiety nearly a month after wildfires forced 80,000 residents of the northern Alberta community to flee their homes.
Officials are expecting between 14,000 and 15,000 residents to return to their homes on the first day of the phased re-entry.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said that traffic has been slow and steady into Fort McMurray since just after 7 a.m. for the first day of re-entry. Notley also said that 30,000 information packages have been attached to the doors of neighbourhoods eligible for re-entry.
Melanie Galea says she's feeling "more nervous than excited" about returning home.
"Boiling water to drink is not an exciting way to go back home," Galea told CTV News Channel on Wednesday while she was making her way from Edmonton to her home in Lower Townsite. "There's lots of hurdles before anyone can say they're going to be comfortable at home."
Galea said when the mandatory evacuation order came into effect in early May, she had enough time to get personal items and electronics from her home.
The flames came as close as her next-door neighbour's backyard, but from what she understands her home didn't suffer any serious damage.
"We have been so lucky in what we have not experienced," she said.
Galea said she expects returning to her home will be an emotional moment.
"When we left, it was in such a panic," she said.
Notley thanked all of the dedicated first responders as well as municipal employees who have been trying to get the city ready for people arriving back home. She also recalled stories of utility crews working all day and night and an extremely successful pet evacuation, with more than 1,000 pets returned safely to their families.
“We are at our best when times are at their worst,” Notley said during a press conference.
According to Notley, certain banks, gas stations and pharmacies are currently open and taxi service has resumed.
Residents brace for emotional return
Rob and Jaylene Rice returned to Fort McMurray about a week ago to get their hardware store in working order before thousands of residents who were forced to flee their homes descend on the community.
Upon returning to his hometown, Rob Rice said he immediately noticed signs of regrowth amid the destruction.
"When you drive into town, you see areas that were just devastated and flattened," he told CTV’s Canada AM on Wednesday. "And then, surprisingly, you see green grass from where the fires happened. The grass is growing back already."
Rob Rice said he was surprised to see that some areas of the community appear completely untouched by the fires.
"It's so green in some areas, and looks as beautiful as it always has."
The couple's message to those planning to return to Fort McMurray in the coming days and weeks is that there are volunteers and support services in place to help evacuees settle back in.
"There's a huge sense of community and we'll be stronger and better than before," Jaylene Rice said.
Rob Rice added: "When you get here, you'll be impressed.
"We will be better than ever."
The phased re-entry into Fort McMurray begins this week, with only residents of Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation and Gregoire Lake Estates allowed to return on Wednesday.
Wood Buffalo RCMP Cpl. George Cameron said Wednesday afternoon that traffic back into the community has been moderate and there's a sense of relief from many of the evacuees returning home.
"I have one of the best jobs in the department today," he told CTV News Channel. "And that's to welcome people back to Fort McMurray."
However, Fort McMurray residents who lived in communities that were hardest-hit by the wildfires, including Abasand, Waterways and Beacon Hill, may have weeks, if not months, to go before they return home due to unsafe toxic ash levels in the soil and air.
According to Bob Couture, regional director of emergency management, the goal is to return everyone to Fort McMurray as safely as they evacuated and he has asked everyone to adhere to the re-entry zone timelines to avoid any issues on the roads.
Environmental testing has been done in the neighbourhoods that people will be re-entering over the next few days, with results saying that the community is safe, said Couture. However, areas such as Abasand and Beacon Hill are currently restricted.
The Medical Officer of Health has recommended that children under seven should not return to Fort McMurray, especially if they have any conditions or a need for immediate medical access. However, the city will not be prohibiting children under seven from returning, leaving that decision up to the parents.
Officials have said the local hospital will not be fully functional until June 21, but is capable of doing basic diagnostic tests, and they're asking residents with health concerns, such as asthma, to wait until then to return home.