Alberta wildfire: ‘Welcome home Fort McMurray’

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(CNN) — At dawn Thursday, Ian Seggie expects to find his northern Alberta condo complex just the way he left it.

The air conditioner was on. A single light illuminated his flat. The soup that was to be a “light lunch” that afternoon exactly one month ago Wednesday still sits on the stove. The bag of rotting garbage in the kitchen will need to go out.

“There’s going to be a lot of work to do,” he said. “You kind of left everything frozen in time.”

Thousands of residents who fled the mammoth inferno that consumed more than 1.4 million acres began the voluntary, phased return to the devastated Canadian oil city of Fort McMurray on Wednesday.

“I didn’t get to leave my mom flowers for Mother’s Day,” Seggie said. “I’m gong to leave them on the doorstep for when my parents get back.”

Seggie and several members of his family were fortunate. Their homes survived an inferno that left thousands without a place to live. In addition, more than 500 homes and 12 apartment complexes that were not destroyed by fire 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.

A sign on the side of a road into town was recently changed from “Welcome to Fort McMurray” to “Welcome HOME Fort McMurray.”

For many residents, the return home could be as painful as the sudden 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, doesn’t know what to expect on Thursday.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Whether or not you have something to go back to, it’s really an emotional roller coaster. 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 will get together for a barbeque. In seven months, he expects to celebrate at home the birth of a nephew or a niece.