Fort McMurray prepares for up to 15,000 returnees

It's expected as many as 15,000 Fort McMurray residents will return home tomorrow, as the first of 90,000 evacuees are allowed to enter the city since a massive wildfire struck almost four weeks ago.

'We want everybody to come back, but be mindful of everybody else,' local official says

The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown in Fort McMurray on May 13. Officials have warned that residents should not expect the fire-damaged city to be running normally when they begin to return on Wednesday. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

It's expected as many as 15,000 Fort McMurray residents will return home tomorrow, as the first of 90,000 evacuees are allowed to enter the city since a massive wildfire struck almost four weeks ago.

"We've been out of the community a long time," said Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the regional emergency operation centre in Wood Buffalo. "We want everybody to come back, but be mindful of everybody else."

Couture spoke to reporters at the RCMP checkpoint, eight kilometres south of Fort McMurray on Highway 63, where he expects hundreds of vehicles will begin lining up at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

"We're asking people to obey the clock," he said. "The door is open. Come home."

Driving through Fort McMurray

CBC News: Edmonton at 6:00

5 years ago
Ride along with Briar Stewart as she drives through the fire-damaged town. 2:32

Those returning who live outside the zone scheduled for re-entry will not be penalized, but neither will they be able to obtain all services.

"ATCO Gas will be concentrating on turning the gas back on in the lower town site," he said. "They won't be going to other areas. People have to be cognizant of that."

Couture expects the day will be emotional for many of the returnees.
Disaster official Bob Couture says it will be an emotional time when the first evacuees arrive in Fort McMurray on Wednesday. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"Speaking from my own perspective.… It is going to be an emotional event when we have the first cars pulling back into the community, because we can all remember when this community left on evacuation. It was pretty dramatic," he said.

"Now it's going to be a joyous event."

Couture said people returning to Fort McMurray may be pleasantly surprised.

Of the 1,600 people who returned to the town earlier to set up essential services such as grocery stores, pharmacies and banks, many found their homes like they left them the day before, Couture said.

"The power wasn't out. The fridge, the freezer. Everything's good."

However, Couture asked those returning tomorrow to keep their expectations in check.

"The grocery stores have been fantastic. The shelves are stocked, but they won't have everything.

"Pharmacies are up and running, but they won't have everything. Banks are operational, but they won't have everything. Some of the coffee stores are open, but not all.

"That's why people coming back in should expect to bring 14 days of supplies, so that you have your resources, so it is not depleting what we have."

Couture wanted to assure residents the town is safe.

"We would not do this unless it was safe to do so," he said.