The first wave of Fort McMurray residents was able to return home Wednesday for the first time since a voracious wildfire forced a mass evacuation of the entire city.
Starting June 1, a voluntary re-entry plan will see groups of residents come back in a phased approach as to not to gridlock highways or overwhelm local services.
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Officials with the municipality were expecting between 14,000 and 15,000 people to come back on Wednesday. And, while the city certainly doesn’t look like the one they left one month ago, there is some sense of normalcy returning to Fort McMurray.
By June 1, there were five grocery stores up and running, five pharmacies, 10 gas stations, 10 hotels and 11 banks open.
“Depending on the nature of the business you’re in – today will be the first entry day for anyone in the downtown – it might be a few weeks to clean off shelves and do what they need to to make their work environments appropriate,” Mayor Melissa Blake said.
Blake said the city wanted to ensure essential services were in place on the first day of re-entry.
“Our grocery stores were imperative, the gas stations… the pharmacies, just the really critical things for people and they did get an early-entry permit.”
Still, the mayor said operations are far from regular.
“What people will not experience is what they had when they left. You’re still going to be on diminished supply,” the mayor said. “Be prepared of course when you come in with things that are essential to them that may not exist in the community.”
The Stoney Creek Save-On Foods opened its doors Wednesday. Everything in the store had to be thrown out and the entire building cleaned. The shelves were restocked in a matter of days.
“In the last week to 10 days, we’ve pulled everything out, cleaned everything, wiped it down and restocked,” general manager Craig Anderson said. “It’s been four straignt days of cleaning and then the last two days, rebuidling and replenishing to be ready for business today.”
Save on Foods reopens today. Everything in store had to be thrown out, then cleaned. Restocked in just days. #ymm pic.twitter广州桑拿网/lUAZgjZHfy
— Reid Fiest (@ReidFiest) June 1, 2016
This is another Save on Foods in Thickwood that remains closed, and likely won’t re-open for another week or longer. pic.twitter广州桑拿网/2MfPgZUsTw
— Reid Fiest (@ReidFiest) June 1, 2016
George Cloete is the associate owner of the Shoppers Drug Mart in downtown Fort McMurray. He describes the last week as a whirlwind.
“If I say chaos, I literally mean chaos.”
Still, in an unbelievable amount of time, the team was able to get the store ready.
“We started cleaning and stock arrived, in pallets and pallets and pallets,” Cloete said. “I never thought we’d be able to do it. What we did in six days typically takes six weeks for a team to do.”
Crews at this @ShopprsDrugMart in #ymm are busy stocking shelves making sure they’re ready for residents. pic.twitter广州桑拿网/xnVPAu4oPE
— Erin Chalmers (@ChalmersErin) June 1, 2016
ATCO had re-lit pilots for natural gas in 1,776 homes.
There were 15,000 people who qualified for re-entry Wednesday. Zone 1 includes Lower Townsite, Anzac, Fort McMurray 468 First Nation and Gregoire Lake Estates, which has more than 5,410 dwellings.
READ MORE: ‘Welcome Home Fort McMurray’: Signs welcome residents forced to flee Fort McMurray wildfire
Thousands of workers with various organizations – including Alberta Health Services, the municipality, Telus, Transportation, Sheriffs, RCMP, Shaw, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and Firesmart – are also on scene.
The mayor said another challenge for local businesses will be supporting anyone whose home was lost or damaged by fire.
“The understanding of who in their employee base has been impacted and what are their needs going to be,” Blake explained. “Normalization is certainly the destination we’re pursuing but the path that each individual business will take will follow differently.”
“We’ve been supported so much, it’s time for us to support each other.”
There are more than 700 staff with the Insurance Bureau of Canada currently in Fort McMurray. Another 744 are expected to arrive shortly, bringing the total to 1,554.
Taxi service is scheduled to resume June 1.
The wildfire remains out of control and is roughly 581,000 hectares. Nearly 2,400 firefighters and support staff are battling the blaze, which is not causing imminent threat to the community of Fort McMurray.
The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s Municipal Law Enforcement Services in cooperation with the Alberta SPCA and many other animal welfare organizations conducted the largest pet evacuation in Canadian history.
Since the fire, 1,177 animals have been rescued. More than 1,078 have been reunited with their owners.