Military veterans to help search through ashes of Fort McMurray's burned homes

Military veterans will sift through the ashes of burned-out homes next week in Fort McMurray's hardest hit neighbourhoods, helping residents retrieve whatever personal items they can find.

Residents of Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill to have escorted guides to their destroyed homes

A burned-out truck sits in Beacon Hill, one of the hardest-hit areas in Fort McMurray. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

Military veterans will sift through the ashes of burned-out homes next week in Fort McMurray's hardest hit neighbourhoods, helping residents retrieve whatever personal items they can find.

People who lost their homes in Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Waterways will be accompanied by members of an NGO group called Team Rubicon. 

"For safety reasons, residents will not be allowed to visit destroyed homes on their own," Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the municipality, said at a news conference Friday. "Once on site, residents may instruct Team Rubicon where to sift for specific items … in the rubble."

Those visits are scheduled to begin June 8. It hasn't been announced yet when residents in those restricted areas, whose homes did not burn down, will be allowed to return.

Rick Brown lived with his family in the Waterways neighbourhood. His house was destroyed by the fire, so he's in no rush to get back.

"Our place got wiped out, someone sent us a text the other day," said Brown. "They've coated it with some white chemical or something, and it's all fenced off. So essentially we can go watch and that's it."

"It is what it is, we can't do anything about it, so we just gotta move on."

Escorted visits to destroyed homes outside the restricted areas will begin on June 5. 

Team Rubicon, started in 2010 in Haiti by two marines, has been deployed to some of the biggest disasters in recent memory. This is Team Rubicon Canada's first deployment.

According to the team website, its service combines "the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams."

Members of Team Rubicon are already in the Fort McMurray area, cleaning and decontaminating food for the Wood Buffalo Food Bank.

The municipality is now working in the restricted areas to apply tackifier, a powder that dries to a hard shell. It is used to cover the ash, which health officials said can be toxic, to keep it from becoming airborne. 

Workers have finished applying tackifier to structures in Waterways and have covered about 35 per cent of destroyed areas in Abasand. Work started on Beacon Hill on Thursday. 

A Mercedes-Benz covered in dried tackifier sits next to a flattened home in Crescent Heights. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Returning home

On Wednesday, only 8,000 of the 13,000 residents eligible to return to the city came back. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, estimated upward of 20,000 of the possible 40,000 eligible residents returned on Thursday.

On Friday, people in Zones 3 and 4A could begin their return. This includes the neighbourhoods of Prairie Creek, Wood Buffalo, Gregoire, Sapare Creek and Thickwood. About 22,000 residents are eligible to return, but officials expect only about half will do so.

Traffic barricades on Highway 63 have been removed. But some areas of the city, including the hardest-hit neighbourhoods, remain restricted until debris is removed. 

The wildfire remains at a massive 581,695 hectares, with no significant growth in the past 48 hours. It is almost 50 per cent contained. Fort McMurray is not considered threatened.

The road block that has prevented access to Fort McMurray has come down and, for the first time in a month, cars carrying residents of the Alberta town are heading home past this modified welcome (home) sign. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

There was some good news for renters Thursday. Municipal officials announced a price freeze on rental housing, and hotel rooms to eliminate price gouging. 

"Operators must maintain the prices that were in effect on April 30," the municipality said in a sternly worded statement. 

The Red Cross announced it is committing $50 million to help community organizations within the Fort McMurray region get back on their feet.

In total, the Red Cross has spent or committed $165 million to the area since the wildfire hit. 

With files from Andrea Huncar