Residents of hardest-hit Fort McMurray neighbourhoods anxious for rebuild

Residents from some of Fort McMurray's hardest-hit neighbourhoods got their first look at what was left on Wednesday. Some are ready to start a clean slate.

Toxic ash, chemicals in Fort McMurray's hardest-hit neighbourhoods preventing full return

Part of the Abasand neighbourhood in Fort McMurray was badly damaged during the wildfire. Residents were temporarily allowed back in to three of the most heavily damaged neighbourhoods on Wednesday. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

Amanda Gergely knew her townhouse in Abasand had burnt to the ground long before she saw the pile of ash to prove it.

But until she saw that ash on Wednesday, it was tough to believe the first home she owned with her husband, Chad, was really gone. 

The townhouse at 130 Almond Crescent with the tan siding was proudly renovated shortly after they moved in during the summer of 2008. The young couple didn't bother with a key — they had a pin pad, and all their friends knew the numbers to get in.

Today, there's barely a hint that a house full of memories ever existed in that cul-de-sac. 

"I guess you kind of hope when you come back up, maybe you'll see something different from the photos," Gergely said. "I originally wanted to go through my ashes. Now I'm ok with not. I don't think I'll find anything."

Gergely did retrieve one thing — a water bill, from the mailbox that still stands on the corner.

She's not sure if she'll pay it. 

Toxic ash, chemicals linger in hard-hit neighbourhoods

Residents were allowed to return for 12 hours to Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways on Wednesday, the first day the blockades were opened for the neighbourhoods badly-damaged by last month's wildfire.

Although many areas of these neighbourhoods remain standing, for safety reasons, residents still can't return home for good. They won't be able to until the debris is cleared away. There's no solid timeline for that, but it could take months.

Let's wipe the slate clean and start from scratch again.- Chad Gergely

Eighty-five soil samples taken from the three neighbourhoods on June 2 showed dangerously high levels of benzene (a known cancer-causing chemical), toluene and ethyl-benzene, along with other chemicals. 

Every sample taken contained levels of toxic chemicals in excess of maximum standards set by the Alberta government, with some levels multiple times higher than what would be expected in the environment. 

Eighty-five soil samples taken from the three neighbourhoods on June 2 showed dangerously high levels of chemicals in the soil. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

The province says the results are consistent with items on residential property which can burn, like vehicle tires.

Everyone entering the neighbourhoods on Wednesday was given a mask. They also had to wear long pants and long sleeves.

Many residents spent the day cleaning and taping up condemned fridges to leave on the curb.

Some took the opportunity to attempt to resume life as usual, cracking some beers on the driveway with neighbours, breathing masks slung over deck chairs. 

Residents were allowed to return for 12 hours to Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways on Wednesday. (CBC/Trevor Wilson)

Moving forward

The Gergelys are taking time to contemplate their next move.

They're currently staying in an apartment in downtown Fort McMurray. It's close to the health clinic that they own. Chad Gergely said he's hearing insurance issues mean it could take up to two years to rebuild their home.

But they want to rebuild in Abasand. 

It's the beautiful big spruce and pine trees surrounding the neighbourhood that drew them in, he said. 

On Wednesday, just across the road from where entire streets of houses had vanished, little green plants were already sprouting up on the forest floor.

They're ready to start growing again too, Chad said.

"Let's wipe the slate clean and start from scratch again," he said. 

"To have us come back stronger than we were would be the stake in the ground to show that Fort McMurray is what it is, and we're as strong as we are."

With files from Terry Reith