Return to Fort McMurray's worst-hit neighbourhoods is gut wrenching

A gut-wrenching day for Fort McMurray residents returning to areas of the city all but annihilated by the wildfire.

Emergency director to residents: 'We do not recommend this, we do not encourage this at all'

Crouching on her knees in the ash of her own home, Tanya Brittain plucks a dusty necklace and charred silver tea set from the rubble.

She turns the items over in her gloved hands, muffled cries echoing from beneath her respirator.

"It's not much, but it's all we have left," she says. 

On Wednesday, blockades outside the three hardest hit neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways were dismantled, allowing escorted visits for up to 4,000 residents to see what remained of their homes.

This was the first time Brittain had seen her Beacon Hill neighbourhood since a wildfire tore through last month.

What remained was mostly charred rubble and toxic ash weighed down by snow-white tackifier. Block by block in every direction was a similar sight — burned-out vehicles, their tires melted onto bleached driveways. The metal coils of mattresses, and spindly spokes of children's bicycles. Washing machines with doors hanging off the hinges, nails littering the ground. 

Residents themselves aren't allowed to sift through rubble for valuables — Team Rubicon, a disaster response organization of trained military veterans, can do it for them.

But Brittain could not get an appointment with them. 

So she suited up in tall rubber boots, a white protective suit and alongside her husband, Terry, decided to dig through the remains of their home by themselves instead.

"I wanted to scream, wanted to vomit," she said, when she first saw the remains of her home.

"Now I'm just happy that we're finding things on our property. That's it, I just want my stuff back. I want my home back."

So she continued digging through the ash, on her hands and knees, even as an RCMP officer urged the couple to stop.

'People doing this ... are putting themselves at risk," said Bob Couture, director of emergency management, who also watched on. 

"Because it's their property, so there's not much the city can do," he said.

Despite a wait list of more than 630 people, if residents have patience to wait, Couture said Team Rubicon will sift through the rubble for them.

He said he understands their frustration, but cares about their safety first. 

"We do not recommend this, we do not encourage this at all. People are putting themselves at risk, significant risk," Couture said. "It's not a safe environment, and people have to be aware of that. There's sharp things in there, there's things that we don't know anything about, there's basements. 

"People doing this on their own are putting themselves at risk, significant risk."

'This was a beautiful town'

The townhouses at Southridge Gardens remain standing just a block away from the rubble of Brittain's home.

Intense heat from the wildfire melted some of the siding, but most remain in near perfect condition with only tall grass, tipped garbage bins and haphazardly abandoned children's toys hinting that residents had fled from flames just a month earlier.

Derek Pike said he was surprised by how his home there seemed perfectly fine, despite the destruction just around the corner.

"I can't smell any smoke but my senses could be kind of plugged up from driving around Beacon Hill. But everything seems to be OK," he said.  

A trucker and Fort McMurray resident of 36 years, Pike said there's nowhere else he'd rather live than along the once quiet streets of Beacon Hill, a jewel of a neighbourhood in the midst of a bustling city. 

He knows he's one of the lucky ones. But he tears up thinking about his neighbours who have no homes to return to.

"We've had some hard times before, but this I think is going to be the worst one ... for the whole town," he said.

 "Not only was Beacon Hill beautiful, but this was a beautiful town."