US & Canada

Fort McMurray fire: First residents return home

Convenience store manager Sunny Katoch paints a welcome sign on the back door as residents begin to flood back into their city after being evacuated due to raging wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 1 June 2016. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption For shop manager Sunny Katoch, it is back to business

Thousands of evacuees who fled a huge wildfire the in Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray a month ago are beginning to return home.

Officials expect up to 15,000 people to go back on Wednesday, although three neighbourhoods remain off-limits.

The water is reported to be not safe to drink yet, and other services are limited.

Authorities will continue assessing conditions daily, and the plans could change if conditions worsen.

CBC reported that five conditions had to be met for people to return, including the restoration of critical services such as police and healthcare.

Early in the morning, police began removing the barricades that had kept residents out of the city.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mike Maloney and his wife Tessa were among the first to return to their homes on Wednesday

The authorities have 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.

Resident returned to their homes with some apprehension.

"We didn't even have time to empty the garbage," said John Smith, 77, who went back with his wife Joyce.

"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."

As they drove into their neighbourhoods, residents were greeted by billboards put up by local authorities saying "`We are here. We are strong''.

And firefighters who were instrumental in evacuating the city last month were back in force, hanging up Canadian flags.

Image copyright Twitter
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Fort McMurray firefighters offered returning residents moral support

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.

About 500 homes in the Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways areas have been deemed unsafe for habitation, meaning about 9,000 people will have to stay out of Fort McMurray for the immediate future.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Residents from the Abasand area (pictured) are not able to return yet
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Media captionFort McMurray firefighter: 'Never seen anything close to this scale'
Image copyright NASA
Image caption Satellite image shows how the fire spread through Fort McMurray
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A heavy police presence will accompany residents returning to Fort McMurray

Extra police and emergency officials are patrolling the city as residents start their return.

"When they say to bring 14 days' worth of food and water, they mean it," said Jim Mandeville, an official with disaster clean-up group FirstOnSite.

"And when they say people with respiratory conditions shouldn't come up here, they mean it - and they have a really good reason why. It is not a clean, safe, normal environment that you're walking into.''

The fire began on 3 May and destroyed more than 2,400 homes and buildings. It shut off nearly a quarter of Canada's oil production as it approached Alberta's oil sands.

The fire is still burning and covers about 580,000 hectares (5,800 sq km), including part of the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, but is not expected to grow significantly.

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