Jacqueline Colbourne was one of the luckier ones.

Most of the homes in her neighbourhood were destroyed by the Fort McMurray wildfire that sent around 90,000 residents fleeing from their communities. While the Colbournes didn’t lose their home, she guessed the flames were no more than 30 feet behind it at the fire’s peak.

“My siding could be melted. I could have ember damage. But as of right now, it’s standing,” Colbourne said.

The fire - nicknamed "The Beast" - has destroyed over 2,000 structures and continues to rage over 500,000 hectares of northern Alberta real estate. Insurance adjustors estimate the cost of repairs in the billions, with much of the damage around the small Alberta city at the heart of its oilsands industry.

Residents of Fort McMurray scattered across the country in the days following evacuation. Many sought refuge at oilsands camps north of the city, while others waited hours in gridlocked traffic on the highway south toward Wandering River and, ultimately, onward to Edmonton and Calgary. Many flew elsewhere — to visit family in Newfoundland, back to their homes in Saskatchewan, or anywhere else they may have roots.

This week, most evacuees are returning to the city they were so abruptly forced from almost one month ago. The RCMP opened its checkpoint on Highway 63 Wednesday morning, expecting around 15,000 residents to return today alone. While Colbourne's re-entry date was delayed, she and her family still have a home to return to. What worries Melanie Woodfine — a Fort McMurray resident for 30 years — is the destruction she's sure to see once she returns home.

Fort McMurray, evacuees, wildfire, University of Calgary, reception centre
A sign directs Fort McMurray evacuees near the University of Calgary campus on June 1, 2016. Photo by Christopher Adams.

“You can’t prepare yourself for that," Woodfine said.

She already received a first-hand account of the devastation from one of her co-workers, the son-in-law of a senior firefighter in Fort MacKay — a community around 50 kilometres north of Fort Mac — who was able to visit his neighbourhood and home a few days ago.

"He’s only a young guy just starting out with a young girlfriend," she said, her voice trembling as she fought back tears. "What he told me he’s seen and how he feels toward McMurray now is just heartbreaking. Fire is the worst thing in the world and it has no forgiveness."

Rachel Notley said re-entry depended on five conditions

On May 18, the Alberta government announced a voluntary re-entry plan for Fort McMurray residents to take place from June 1–4, with the hardest hit areas — Beacon Hill, Abasand, and Waterways — scheduled for re-entry on the final day.

Canadian Wildland Fire Information System's map showing daily fire severity across Canada on June 1, the first day of Fort Mac re-entry. Courtesy CWFIS

Stressing that this was a voluntary plan, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley had said that re-entry would depend on five conditions: The wildfire must no longer threaten the community, critical infrastructure is able to provide basic services, hazardous areas are secured, and “local government is re-established.” Officials must also restore essential services — emergency medical, law enforcement and health care — to a basic level before re-entry is possible.

But around 2,000 people won’t return to their homes as originally planned.

The June 4 re-entry has since been scrapped, extending the displacement of thousands, including Colbourne, over the summer. Tests showed unsafe levels of arsenic and heavy metals in Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways, deeming the area unfit for habitation. That means the government has deemed 567 homes and 12 apartment buildings — housing between 1,500–2,000 people — “unsafe for habitation.”

These families might not be allowed to return until as late as September, The Canadian Press reported.

Rebuilding is priority for many

Jillian Holt, a fourth-year nursing student at Keyano College, was living with her mother in Abasand before the fire. She flew to Nanaimo, British Columbia, a few days before May 3 to visit friends living on the island and missed the evacuation order that sent her family fleeing south toward Lac la Biche. She’s been in Nanaimo ever since, but she didn’t pack much. She assumed she’d have a wardrobe to return to.

The Holts lost their home to the fire. Her brother and sister-in-law, who live in the neighbouring community of Beacon Hill, lost their home as well. Holt’s hosts in Nanaimo had a house in Fort McMurray around the corner from hers, but it was also lost to the fire.

She had planned to return with her mother on the initial June 4 re-entry date, hoping to salvage some of the sentimental things she left behind. Holt said her mother just needs answers, that “the longer it goes on, the harder it is for everyone.”

“You just have some kind of hope that there’s something left that will just make it easier. But obviously with all the contaminants and stuff they’re obviously going to be limiting that,” Holt said.

Holt plans to stay in Nanaimo over the summer — traveling back and forth from Vancouver Island to Fort Mac isn’t doable on a student budget. But her mom will go back and assess the damage once she’s able, getting an idea of what steps she has to take in order to rebuild.

And, make no mistake, rebuilding is their priority.

“I mean, we’ve been in Fort Mac since 2000. It’s become home, and I think that we’ll all be a part of helping rebuild the community to what it was before," Holt said.

Woodfine has lived in Fort McMurray for 30 years, watching the city evolve from a small northern outpost to an oil boomtown on the rise. Many of her friends lost their homes. Whether they’ve lived in Fort McMurray for “a month or 30 or 40 years,” she says they want to rebuild.

That’s a start, a sign that Fort McMurray’s spirit is far from destroyed.

It could take months before some can go home

Families in the delayed zone can arrange to assess their houses and retrieve any belongings they left behind with officials in the coming weeks. But a full re-entry is likely months away, and many are left to wonder why they can’t return to the homes they fled in early May.

Colbourne, a Syncrude employee and Fort McMurray resident of 14 years, fled her home with her family on May 3, seeking refuge at the family's cabin in Stettler.

Colbourne said her family is disheartened about the prospect of having to wait months before they can go home to their Abasand neighbourhood.

“I understand it's for our health and well being but I'm sure you can feel our frustration," she said.

Before the government postponed their scheduled June 4 re-entry, she and her kids planned to stay in Stettler until early July. In an interview conducted before Abasand’s new re-entry date was announced, Colbourne said their return “depends on the air quality, boil advisory, and all that stuff.”

But now that their re-entry date is delayed, Colbourne just wants an absolution. Her family intended to head home to shut off their water, furnace, and essentially “secure the house for the duration of the summer.” Their power has been restored, and they pray that water hasn’t flooded their basement.

Right now, that’s their biggest concern.

“If there is water damage, mouldy food, etc, our house and many others will be a biohazard by the end of the summer if the cleanup takes that long due to warm temperatures and organic material in the house,” Colbourne said.

The Colbournes have a place to stay rent-free — their Stettler cabin — and are financially stable. Jacqueline’s husband has been working since mid May, and she's worked remotely when she can find WiFi. She counts her blessings, considering her family more fortunate than most.

But others haven’t been so lucky, with some questioning whether they’ll move back at all.

Amanda Weger is one of those people. She has lived in Fort McMurray for nearly nine years, having transferred there from Regina to work at the city’s local RCMP dispatch. She then took a job in the oil and gas sector as a human resources representative.

“2016 has been hard on Fort McMurray,” Weger said. “The way I summarize it is our community was devastated by oil prices and then destroyed by fire. So many people have lost their jobs, including me.”

All she got was a $70 Walmart gift card

Like so many others since the downturn in the oil economy, Weger lost her job at Mammoet Canada Western — a heavy lift and transport company that supplies things like cranes to oil companies. She moonlights as a nutritionist and fitness expert, but she doesn’t have a job to go back to.

Without the security of steady work, Weger’s unsure if she’ll stick around.

“I’m applying for jobs all over the place because maybe this is the universe telling me that it’s time to change. Maybe it’s an opportunity to try new things, to experience new people, to experience new areas,” Weger said.

Weger evacuating Fort Hills with her two golden labs on a Suncor jet. Photo courtesy of Amanda Weger.

Weger fled to Regina with her cousin, a WestJet pilot, in the days following evacuation. She’s been there ever since, and said she couldn’t access relief funds from the Red Cross or Alberta Government. All she got was a $70 Wal-Mart gift card.

The government has since said that residents who evacuated outside the province will receive their relief funding when they arrive back in for the phased re-entry. Weger’s neighbourhood can return home on June 2, but she doesn’t expect to stay in town much longer than she needs to assess both the home she lives in and the rental property she owns. Her insurance adjustor can’t meet with her till June 6 or 7, so she’ll commute back and forth from either Edmonton or Calgary until everything is settled.

And while a lack of permanent employment might keep some from returning, the need for a steady paycheck is driving a desire in others to rush home.

Kim Irvine has lived in Fort McMurray for just under six years with her 10-year-old son. She works in short-term housing for a company called Premier Suites Western and has stayed in one of her company’s properties in Edmonton since the evacuation. Like so many others, Irvine packed clothes for work the following day once she got the call to evacuate.

She and her son had just moved into a new home in Timberlea, a community located in the city’s northwest. She is going back on June 3, but isn’t taking her son with her. She wants to get the gas turned on at her house and assess the damage before she brings him home.

Irvine has collected support funds from the government and Red Cross, and has filed for EI. But like so many other single parents, she can’t afford to be out of work any more than she already has been.

“With my job, I have a lot to do. We have townhouses and apartments there. So there’s going to be a lot for me to do when I get back. I’m gonna go in and make sure our units are clean and that they have everything they need,” Irvine said.

At the same time, like others, Irvine is nervous about what she'll see when she returns.

“I have a lot of friends who live in Abasand and Beacon Hill and they’ve lost everything. So I kind of think that’s going to be a little surreal to drive through and see total neighbourhoods burnt to the ground. It’s not going to be the same as when I left,” Irvine said.​

"I don't have my little dog with me."

Woodfine is also heading straight back to work, although not within the city. She was in Fort Hills, Suncor’s base camp north of Fort McMurray, when the government issued the mandatory evacuation order on May 3. She drove the hour from Fort Hills to her house in Timberlea, but was stopped by a police barricade when she reached the city. Police told her she couldn’t re-enter Fort McMurray and recommended she turn around, but Woodfine couldn’t leave her dog behind. So she hopped the curb and headed straight home.

In a panic, she packed her most important belongings — her hard drive and photos.

“The dog could feel my anxiety. I just packed what I could. I took dirty clothes from the hamper because I figured I was coming to work the next day.”

She spent five nights in an Edmonton hotel while her parents — who stayed in Fort McMurray the night of the evacuation — flew to Newfoundland on May 5. Woodfine followed three days later, staying with family for just under two weeks before being called her back out to work on May 15. She arrived at camp on May 20 on a Suncor jet and has been there ever since.

“The staff and facilities and food is amazing and they’re welcoming, but it’s lonely. It’s very lonely. To look around the room and realize I don’t have my little dog with me, it’s still like a piece of me is not here.”

Woodfine’s neighbourhood is scheduled for re-entry on June 2, but she’s going to pick up her car and her dog in Edmonton on May 31 before driving north to camp for “one more hitch.” She doesn’t want to be in Fort McMurray while “all the craziness is going on.”

“I don’t want to go home and be alone. All of my people are scattered all over Canada,” Woodfine said. “I don’t want to be home and alone and not have my people around me.”

Evacuees escaping the wildfire as it ravaged Fort McMurray. Courtesy Amanda Weger.

Air quality a major concern in Fort McMurray

Air quality is also a problem. Woodfine's father was hospitalized with bronchitis days after arriving in Newfoundland, and her mother has asthma. Her family plans to return on June 15, around the same time Woodfine’s 14-day stretch at work concludes.

At its worst, the air quality index (AQI) ranked Fort McMurray’s AQI as high as 51 on a scale out of 10 as the fire had its way with the city of nearly 90,000. On June 1, Fort Mac's air quality was listed at one out of 10, the lowest and healthiest possible score.

But the Alberta government still advises those with respiratory issues — along with other health concerns potentially complicated by sub-par air quality — from returning before the middle of June. ​

“Several of my friends are seven months pregnant. Some of them have little kids and they just want to wait until after the mad rush cause the highway is going to be a zoo,” Woodfine said. “We managed to get everyone out of here safely but I feel like there’s going to be some issues on the way back. I hope not, but I feel like there’s going to be some collisions.”

The provincial government issued a boil-water advisory for residents returning during the early stages of re-entry. It has also recommended that residents would need to bring a three- to seven-day supply of food, filled prescriptions, long-sleeved shirts, long pants and rubber boots, and respirator masks.

Mayor Melissa Blake said she wouldn't return until water is safe to drink

Woodfine isn’t all that concerned about the lack of services available in the early stages of re-entry: “It is what it is. I can live off a bucket of protein powder.” Others are more worried. According to the CBC, Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said she won’t return until the water is safe to drink.

Colbourne shared those concerns in an interview conducted before her re-entry date was postponed. She had planned to stay in Stettler with her children until services were restored to their normal functions.

“You know, grocery stores and gas stations and banks and pharmacies — I don’t want to go to a town where I can’t get at those services. You have a family and you need to eat and you need fuel,” Colbourne said. By the time her family is allowed to return, those services should be up and running at full capacity.

Hundreds of families have lost homes to the fire. Many more will need significant work done to mend smoke damage, remove “white waste,” and any other damage the fire may have caused. And the government has already committed to granting local companies the majority of rebuild contracts. The Alberta government has said that local businesses received around 80 per cent of reconstruction and clean-up contracts signed as of May 27.

But for many, the summer will be a test of endurance.

“I don’t think people are going to be able to relax this summer. They’re going to be concentrated on getting back to work, getting caught up on bills, rebuilding their houses, trying to find a place to live,” Irvine said. “It’s going to be different.”

Irvine’s 10-year-old son will return with her at some point this summer. She said he’ll probably hang out with friends, ride his bike, “that sort of thing.” While she’s going in with a positive attitude, it won’t be the same as summers past. The fire changed all that.

“I’m going to be keeping a really close eye on him. Everything on May 3 happened so quickly. In a matter of 20 minutes it went downhill so fast.”

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