06/01/2016 05:56 EDT | Updated 06/02/2017 01:12 EDT

Residents return to fire-damaged western Canadian oil city

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A steady stream of traffic is moving into the fire-damaged Canadian oil sands city of Fort McMurray as thousands of people who fled a wildfire at the start of May return to see what's left.

The fire destroyed 2,400 structures when it ripped through last month, forcing more than 80,000 residents to flee.

The forest is blackened about half an hour outside the city on the only highway in and out of the area. A strong smell of smoke hangs in the air. Billboards were put up saying "Safe Resilient Together" and "We are here. We are strong" to greet people as they drove in.

Officials expect thousands of evacuees to return to the city Wednesday — the first day of a staged re-entry.