Residents start returning to Canada's fire-stricken communities

Convenience store manager Sunny Katoch paints a welcome sign on the back door as residents begin to flood back into their city after being evacuated due to raging wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, June 1, 2016.

Convenience store manager Sunny Katoch paints a welcome sign on the back door as residents begin to flood back into their city after being evacuated due to raging wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, June 1, 2016. 

Topher Seguin/Reuters

Tens of thousands of Fort McMurray residents were expected to begin trickling back into the Canadian oil city ravaged by wildfires Wednesday after the blaze was declared no longer a threat.

"Getting life back to a degree of normalcy in the immediate (future) is the key, and obviously for those people who have lost their homes tragically it is to make sure they have the supports they need," Scott Long, head of the Alberta Emergency Management agency, told reporters on the eve of the migration.

The fire, which forced the evacuation one month earlier of nearly 100,000 people from the city and surrounding villages, remains out of control.

But it has moved away from populated areas as it heads eastward, while growing only minimally in the last few days to more than 1.4 million acres.

Smoke has largely dissipated in the city itself, raising local air quality to safe levels.

"At this time the fire does not pose any immediate threat to Fort McMurray or surrounding communities," said Alberta wildfire manager Chad Morrison.

The residents were scheduled to begin returning at 8 a.m. Wednesday, with police monitoring traffic flows and ambulances on standby.

Rest stops have been set up along the mostly barren 310-mile route from Edmonton to Fort McMurray.

The Red Cross has offered to bus in up to 2,000 people per day.

The repatriation will be voluntary and phased in over two weeks to prevent highway gridlock.

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016.

Smoke and flames from the wildfires erupt behind a car on the highway near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 7, 2016. 

Credit:

Mark Blinch/Reuters

However, three hard-hit neighborhoods — Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways — will be closed off until September, when remediation and cleanup are expected to be completed.

Most of the homes in these neighborhoods, which have been fenced off by a 19-mile enclosure, were burned to the ground when fires swept through at the beginning of May.

More than 500 undamaged houses and apartments were deemed unsafe for habitation this week after tests of air, soil and ash revealed chemical and heavy metal contamination.

Oil sands facilities to the north, meanwhile, are scheduled to bring production back online by week's end.

Returnees were encouraged to stock up on gasoline, food, water and prescription medicines before embarking on the trip home, due to shortages in Fort McMurray.

When they arrive, they will find a community that has been devastated and will need a long rebuilding process.

The downtown was unscathed and the hospital is ready to offer emergency care.

But several neighborhoods and surrounding woods have been scorched. Playgrounds look ghostly, and many businesses will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future.

Seniors, children under seven and anyone with a medical condition were urged to delay their return, while those coming back were advised to wear masks when cleaning up to avoid breathing in any contamination.

"I think it will be shocking," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.