By Topher Seguin
FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (Reuters) – Thousands of evacuees who fled a massive wildfire in the Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray began to trickle back to their homes on Wednesday, though the water was still not safe to drink and other services were limited.
More than 90,000 residents fled the remote northern Alberta city as the fire hit four weeks ago, burning entire neighborhoods. Officials expect 14,000 to 15,000 to return on Wednesday as a two week staged re-entry gets underway.
Downtown Fort McMurray, untouched by fire, was quiet but not empty early on Wednesday morning. Some stores were already open, and there was still some smoke in the air.
John Smith, 77, and his wife, Joyce, were bracing for heavy traffic on the main highway leading into the city, as well as what may lie ahead.
“We didn’t even have time to empty the garbage,” he said. “I’m going in first with a flashlight and wearing a mask, and one of us will open the doors and windows and flush the house out.”
The blaze was a devastating blow to a community already reeling from a two-year slump in global crude prices. It shuttered more than a million barrels per day of crude production, though some facilities have since resumed operations.
Early in the morning, police began removing the barricades that had kept residents out of the city. Authorities told those returning to bring two weeks’ worth of food, water and prescription medication. The area is under a boil water advisory and the local hospital’s capabilities are limited.
Some 2,000 residents who had expected to return this week were told on Monday that they should not go back because of risks posed by debris and contaminants, including caustic ash. Among them were Elsie Knister, 63, and her neighbor Mary Lindsey McNutt, 33.
“I have panic attacks, there’s water damage, there are toxins in my furniture and my cupboards, and under the floor,” Knister said. “I am scared of everything right now, and I am going to have to deal with it one day at a time.”
The pair had been staying in Edmonton and moved north to the Wandering River evacuee camp over the weekend in preparation for their return. They said they were not sure where to go next.
“I feel they are bringing people back in here way too quickly,” McNutt said. “My family in Nova Scotia are saying why don’t you come home for the summer? If we are displaced until August or September I will probably get on a plane.”
Deteriorating air quality could force officials to change re-entry plans yet again.
About 10 percent of the city’s homes were destroyed by the blaze, which has blackened more than 580,000 hectares (2,239 square miles).
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Calgary; Editing by Alan Crosby)