Fort McMurray evacuee Henry Velasquez lost his home to the wildfire and is pictured with his wife Olga and son Tomas in Calgary on Monday.

Fort McMurray residents brace for return to city after fire

Henry Velasquez wants to return to the place where his home once stood — someday, but not yet.

FORT MCMURRAY — Henry Velasquez wants to return to the place where his home once stood — someday, but not yet.

Residents are being allowed to return in stages this week, a month after a voracious wildfire destroyed 10 per cent of Fort McMurray and forced the evacuation of the entire city.

But Velasquez, a chemical engineer, will be hanging back in Calgary with his wife, Olga, and son Tomas, 3.

He’s just not ready for the emotional punch of seeing what’s left of their townhouse in the Stone Creek neighbourhood at the north end of town.

In July or August, he’ll re-evaluate, he said.

“I just want to go there before they start the demolition of everything, because I just want to see where my house is, see if there is at least one memory that I could rescue from what we have,” he said through tears.

“The most simple, the most small thing that I could recover from that, it will be such a treasure for me and my wife.”

In Ian Seggie’s apartment in the Timberlea neighbourhood, there’s still a bag of trash waiting to be taken out and a pot of soup ready to be heated on the stove.

“The eerie part for me is that everything is frozen in time,” he said from Calgary, where he’s been staying since May 3, when more than 80,000 people were ordered out of the city.

Roadblocks are to be lifted and government reception centres open for business at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Bob Couture, director of emergency management for the Wood Buffalo municipality, said it’s expected that between 14,000 and 15,000 people could show up.

The Red Cross is prepared to bus in as many as 2,000 residents who don’t have their own cars.

Returning residents are being warned that it won’t be business as usual. They’ve been advised to bring with them two weeks worth of food, water and prescription medication as crews continue to work to get basic services restored.

Seggie made arrangements with an Edmonton grocery store to have perishable food pre-frozen. He plans to pick it up on his way to Fort McMurray and load it into coolers.

He doesn’t know whether he’ll stay once he goes up on Thursday.

“If the air quality goes to crap, I’m not sticking around,” he said. “I need to get back and get my place dealt with, just to have a look and search things out. And if I stay, I stay.”

Kevin Lewis is anxious to get back into his apartment in Thickwood, a relatively undamaged neighbourhood that’s slated to reopen on Friday.

Lewis has been unable to run his transportation brokerage business since the evacuation and he figures he’s lost some $40,000 over the last month.

“I definitely need to get to work,” Lewis said from Lac La Biche, Alta., a small town about 2 1/2 hours southeast of Fort McMurray that’s taken in thousands of evacuees.

Lewis knows it’s a possibility that smoke damage may have rendered his place uninhabitable.

“If it’s not really livable there yet, I could at least be able to grab my computers and I’ll be able to work.”

Jim Mandeville, senior project manager with Mississauga-based FirstOnSite Restoration, has been in Fort McMurray since May 8 to help critical businesses such as banks, grocery stores and pharmacies get running again.

Dozens of FirstOnSite workers have been working long days disposing of spoiled food, cleaning ventilation systems and removing smoky odours from upholstery and carpets.

Mandeville said provincial and municipal officials aren’t underplaying how challenging it will be for residents to return.

“When they say to bring 14 days worth of food and water, they mean it. And when they say people with respiratory conditions shouldn’t come up here, they mean it — and they have a really good reason why,” he said.

“It is not a clean, safe, normal environment that you’re walking into.”

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