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Fort McMurray Fire: Residents Prepare To Return Home

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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — 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 in northern Alberta 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.

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Fort McMurray evacuee Henry Velasquez, his wife Olga and son Tomas, lost their home to the wildfire. (Photo: Jeff McIntosh/CP)

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.''

alberta wildfire
Burned out homes are pictured in the Abasand neighbourhood of Fort McMurray. (Photo: Chris Wattie/AFP/Getty)

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.

Officials have warned returning residents that it won't be business as usual in Fort McMurray. 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.

"It is not a clean, safe, normal environment that you're walking into.''

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.''

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A highway sign displays no access to Fort McMurray. Some residents will soon be allowed back to the city in stages. (Photo: Cole Burston/AFP/Getty)

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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