Rain and less smoke keep Fort McMurray re-entry plan on schedule

The colossal task of preparing an abandoned city for the return of more than 90,000 residents continued Thursday, aided by light rain and cooler temperatures that saw air quality in Fort McMurray return to near normal levels for the first time in more than two weeks.

Change in the weather, better air quality, good news for officials working to reopen city

Before people can return to their homes, Fort McMurray must be ready to provide them with services the rest of the country takes for granted. (CBC)

The colossal task of preparing an abandoned city for the return of more than 80,000 residents continued Thursday, aided by light rain and cooler temperatures that saw air quality in Fort McMurray return to near normal levels for the first time in more than two weeks.

The province's plan calls for residents to begin returning to the city on June 1. Much work remains if that tentative schedule is to be met.

But the change in the weather and progress in holding back the fire, along with much better air quality, spelled good news for those working to prepare the city for reoccupation.

"It makes me feel more confident that we might be able to achieve the dates that were set out," Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said at a news conference.

Before people can return to their homes, the city has be ready to provide them with services the rest of the country takes for granted.

From hospital to stores and banks

The hospital has to reopen. So do the stores and banks. And the gas stations.

"This week we were able to get a few retailers in to inspect their facilities," said Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee. "This is part of the plan to ensure there are basic amenities such as grocery stores and pharmacies up and running when residents return."

Emergency management officials say they're now working with companies that must assess the damage and determine how long it will take to fix.

"We've had advance parties come into the community," said Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the municipality.

"They've been doing what we call reconnaissance on their stores and their properties, determining what it's going to take to get those facilities back into operation, to get them stocked again with the appropriate supplies and goods that will support our citizens. We anticipate that to go forward quickly here in the next little while."

Five condos destroyed overnight

There was some bad news, however. A five-unit condo complex on Saline Forest Road in south Thickwood was destroyed by fire overnight. The fire started about 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Couture said.

The same complex was damaged by fire the day before. The cause of both fires is under investigation.

Another big task ahead will be what officials call "debris management," collecting and hauling away the charred remains of homes and buildings that burned down.

Electricity has been restored to more than 90 per cent of customers, and natural gas service to about 75 per cent, Larivee said.

But that doesn't mean people will simply have to unlock their doors, unpack their suitcases and get back to their daily lives.

"As a precautionary measure, ATCO has shut off the gas at the meter to all homes and businesses in Fort McMurray," Larivee said. "As residents and businesses return, they can request ATCO to come to each location, do a gas-safety inspection at the property, turn on the service and help to relight each appliance."

Officials say they expect there will be smoke damage in some homes, perhaps water damage as well.

Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said the municipality plans to have cleaning services available for smoke-damaged houses and businesses.