Alberta wildfire: 'Welcome home Fort McMurray'

Coming home after a wildfire
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Story highlights

  • Thousands have begun the voluntary, phased return to Fort McMurray
  • Mammoth wildfire has consumed more than 1.4 million acres since May 1

(CNN)Ian Seggie arrived at his northern Alberta home at dawn Thursday. It was just the way he left it.

The air conditioning was on. A single light illuminated his apartment. The tomato soup that was to be his light lunch that afternoon early last month still sat on the stove. His Internet and cable service were working.
    "You kind of left everything frozen in time," he said in a phone interview.
    Seggie was among the thousands of residents who fled the mammoth inferno that consumed more than 1.4 million acres and who have now begun the voluntary, phased return to the devastated Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray.
    About half of the 80,000 displaced residents were expected back by week's end, according to CNN partner CTV News.
    "I didn't get to leave my mom flowers for Mother's Day," Seggie said. "I'm going to leave them on the doorstep for when my parents get back."
    Seggie and his family were fortunate. Their homes survived the massive blaze that left thousands without a place to live.
    In addition, more than 500 homes and 12 apartment complexes that were not destroyed have been declared unsafe for habitation, authorities said.
    About 2,000 firefighters are still trying to get a grip on the blaze, which started May 1 near Fort McMurray.
    Still, a sign on the side of a road into town was changed from "Welcome to Fort McMurray" to "Welcome HOME Fort McMurray."
    "I'm relieved I don't have as much to deal with," Seggie said. "That's not the case for everybody."
    Anxious and unable to sleep, Seggie left Edmonton at about 2 a.m. for the long drive home. The approach to Fort McMurray was eerie. Firebreaks carved out of the city's lush outskirts "smelled like fresh cut forest, like a Christmas tree," he said.
    Swaths of once-green hillsides were now ashen black. "You could smell the misery" of destruction in the Beacon Hill and Abasand sections, he said. A thick fog hung over the center of the city "like pea soup."
    Fort McMurray fire before and after map

    'Happy for them, sad for us'

    For now, Melanie Drever will not be driving past that sign.
    The family house in the heavily damaged Beacon Hill section -- where she lives with her husband, Paul, and their three children -- is intact but they will not be able to move back in until September.
    Many homes in Beacon Hill and neighboring areas will not be permanently occupied until fire debris has been removed, authorities said.
    On Wednesday, as some friends began returning home, Drever described her feelings: "Happy for them, sad for us. A little bit of jealousy, a little frustration."
    And guilt. Two of her sisters lost their homes in the fire, she said. They're temporarily living in campers.
    "As a person with a house that is standing, I never felt so bad for owning something," she said. "It's very weird to feel guilty for having a house standing and so many people have lost so much. Why me and not them?"
    Drever, her daughter and two sons are staying about five hours south of Fort McMurray, she said. Her husband has been living in a camper on the storage yard of a rental business they own.

    'See how their community has changed'

    The family and their two dogs fled Fort McMurray on May 3.
    "My mother-in-law called to tell us we needed to get home," Drever recalled.
    "It was terrifying. My husband grew up in that area. He's lived there his entire life. And to not know if we were ever going to see our house again was horrifying. We had five minutes to grab some things and get out."
    For many residents, the return could be as painful as the departure, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said.
    "It's very possible that for many people the re-entry process will be the next most stressful day since then because they'll see how their community has changed," she said.
    Many will be shocked at what they find. About 10% of the city of more than 80,000 people has been destroyed, including at least 2,400 structures, the premier's office has said.
    "The people of Fort McMurray have been profoundly patient, resilient, determined and graceful under tremendous pressure," Notley said.
    "I think when they return and, over the course of the next few weeks, they need to anticipate that people are going to react to the stress a little differently ... but remain focused on that overriding goal of supporting each other."
    Seggie, 40, wasn't sure what to expect on Thursday.
    "Whether or not you have something to go back to, it's really an emotional roller coaster," he said.
    "I'm doing good one minute and you hit a wall the next. I know people who won't be coming back. They're saying, 'We're done. We're not doing it again.' My whole family is there."
    On Saturday, Seggie and his family plan a barbeque. In seven months, they expect to celebrate at home the birth of a nephew or a niece.

    'I knew it was time to go'

    A former broadcaster who for a time dabbled in the local oil industry, Seggie captured video of the fast-spreading fire just miles from his doorstep last month in the Timberlea neighborhood.
    "That was my last hurrah," he said.
    In nearby Beacon Hill, the blaze took down radio transmission towers.
    "As soon as you heard the disc jockey saying, 'That's it. We're out of here. We're done.' I knew it was time to go," he said.
    Seggie said his return is bittersweet.
    "I have a friend who lost everything," he said.
    "I've been kind of his shoulder to lean on through all this. His neighborhood was completely wiped out. He had lost his father 10 months ago and now this. He says, 'I don't know that I should ever go back.'"
    At one point Thursday morning, however, Seggie couldn't bring himself to take a call from his friend.
    "It's the sense of guilt," he said. "I don't know what to say to him."