When Geri Hardisty saw her Hughes Avenue home in Waterways was still standing, she wept. Not because she was overjoyed to see it survived last month's fire, but because so many of her neighbours' homes had not.
Down the street, a couple spent most of Wednesday morning peering through the fences at a pile of twisted metal and ash that had once been their home. Across from Hardisty, a Harley Davidson motorcycle could be seen in the rubble.
The wilting metal skeletons of cars and trucks were monuments to how hot the fire burned. What were once entire blocks filled with houses, trailers and stores were now fields of white craters; charred basements, filled with the debris of homes that once stood over them, were covered in a slurry that hardened into a crust to stop the wind from blowing ash across the city.
But the security guards, police officers and utility workers were not taking any chances as they entered the restricted areas wearing breathing masks.
It was a scene repeated in Beacon Hill and Abasand, two other neighbourhoods that suffered the most damage from last month's inferno.
“It's just horrible. I know everyone on this street and I know how much they've lost,” said Hardisty, 53. “But I know Waterways and Waterways people are strong. We’ll rebuild.”
Eight days prior, most of the city had reopened to the public, but much of the city's older southern half restricted. That was lifted on Wednesday, when the city gave the public limited access to the razed neighbourhoods.
The municipality had kept the areas sealed for safety reasons, but on opening day, 981 residents had arrived to see if anything was left. Elsewhere, 42,000 residents had returned to the city by lunch time.
“It was a very emotional day. Many of the people we welcomed back to Abasand, Beacon hill and Waterways have lost their homes,” said Bob Couture, the municipality's director of emergency management, during an afternoon teleconference with media. “There will certainly be more in the coming weeks.”
Unlike last week's homecoming, there were no firefighters under a giant Canadian flag waving to cars. No impromptu barbecues or welcome home parties would start in these areas for months.
Handmade signs outside the entrances to the neighbourhoods sent reassuring messages: "We stand together." "Sending Love Your Way." Inside, there was anger. There were tears. And for some, there was closure.
“There’s nothing left. There’s nothing to find in this. It’s devastating. This was my childhood, all gone,” said Leonard Hansen, 53. “They always ask what you would grab in a fire. Now I know the answer, and it’s my life. My family made it out and that’s what matters.”
The lucky few with homes still standing in the restricted areas can visit as often as they like for now, so long as they stay between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It is enough time to grab their belongings and leave; the province says there are too many toxins in the air and soil to move back. For some, there were doubts their surviving homes would stand for very long.
“I didn’t take out my refrigerator to the curb. The condo owner says the city will probably tear this all down,” said Shannon Champion, who has been living in a trailer park outside Edmonton since fleeing Abasand. “It’s happy to grab our things, but sad to see all this. It’s sad to see our home for what could be the last time.”
Champion, along with his wife and two of his three children, had returned to their Applewood Drive home to load a trailer with their belongings. They spent the day wearing masks and protective white suits.
Even if they were permitted to move back into their home, it was impossible. Much of the exterior plastic siding had melted, leaving the interior exposed to smoke, toxins and rain for weeks. Inside, the smoke smell was overwhelming.
Looking west, where the fire came from, was destruction. The town houses, duplexes and apartment complexes that stood between the Champion's home and the treeline were flattened.
In Waterways, talk of clearing the treeline and only partially rebuilding the neighbourhood angered Hardisty, who has lived on Hughes Avenue since 2000. The community is in a floodway, and councillors have acknowledged rebuilding homes elsewhere in the city is a worst-case scenario, but a possibility.
“No one is taking my house away. My house has never flooded,” said Hardisty. “And it’s horrible what’s happening to the trees. It was so pretty to come out and look at the forest. I hate what is happening.”
Wednesday, June 8, 2016/Fort McMurray Today