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Fort McMurray residents returning home

June 2, 2016

Four weeks after a fire forced them out of their homes, the first residents have returned to Fort McMurray as the Canadian town starts to reopen. But authorities are cautioning on moving back too soon.

Destroyed houses in Fort McMurray
Image: Reuters/T. Seguin

Residents wore government-issued wristbands as they returned to their hometown to take stock of their situation. Watched over by 300 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, they were given advice and warnings.

"Today is not the end of this story. It is not a return to normal life and it's not yet a celebration. There is a still a lot of work to recover and rebuild. This will be the work of years, not weeks," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told reporters on Wednesday.

Up to 15,000 people were allowed to return in a gradual process that began Wednesday and continues until Saturday. Many residents have insurance under which coverage of hotel expenses runs out after 14 to 30 days. The province has set up a fund to help people with housing costs that their insurance does not cover. Notley said about 7,500 people arrived in the city Wednesday.

Fort McMurray residents returning home
Fort McMurray residents returning homeImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Burston

The wildfire is still burning out of control in some areas south of Fort McMurray. The blaze has covered about 581,695 hectares (1.43 million acres).

Officials told people to take food which would last them at least two weeks as well as water, medicine and other essentials. Stores and other services in the city have not fully reopened. It is not yet safe to drink tap water and not all utilities are back online.

Using the experience gained from previous evacuations, local health providers have welcomed mental health workers from across Canada to help the Fort McMurray evacuees to face the emotional and psychological effects of the fire.

More than 500 houses and apartments which survived the fire have been declared unfit for habitation until a cleanup can be completed.

Nearly 2,000 buildings were destroyed with a further 174 damaged by fire - representing about 10 percent of the city's structures.

Some residents face a choice of rebuilding their homes or taking a cash settlement and walking away. An economic slump in Alberta brought on by the decline in world oil prices has led to many job losses in what had been one of Canada's boom towns.

jm/msh (Reuters, AP)