FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — Nothing seems amiss looking at the front of Adam Chouinard's Fort McMurray house, aside for the yellow "restricted use" sign taped to the door.
But the back is a jumbled mess of wood beams and unrecognizable debris.
"I had a deck, a barbecue, a garage, a car, a couple of bikes and now they're gone," the 33-year-old oilsands worker said as he waited for a contractor to stop by and assess the damage.
Chouinard's street is at the edge of a scene of extreme destruction. Just beyond what used to be his backyard is a white-grey mass of rubble and charred vehicles.
He and other north-end evacuees were allowed back into the city Thursday, a month after raging flames forced everyone to flee. The city's largely undamaged downtown and some smaller surrounding communities re-opened on Wednesday.
Residents cleaned and mowed lawns until a fierce late-afternoon thunderstorm unleashed heavy rains and forced everyone inside.
A bulldozer clipped the siding of Chouinard's house in a few spots during the frantic fight to keep the fire at bay. Heat blew out some windows, causing severe smoke damage inside.
He and his wife were trying to stay optimistic, even though they don't know when they'll be able to live in their home again.
"Now we're just here to pick up the pieces and rebuild it better than before," he said. "Fort McMurray has given us a lot and we're just looking forward to giving back."
Officials have said it's dangerous to go into the scorched areas that have been fenced off. Municipal emergency management director Bob Couture reiterated that warning on Thursday after a media report showed a resident walking through the debris in a restricted area.
Nootan Patel thought she would be able to have a look at what's left of her home in the Stone Creek neighbourhood on Thursday and was surprised that authorities would not allow her to access it.
Patel, a supply chain manager at Suncor, wiped tears from her eyes as she peered through a chain-link fence at the rubble on the other side, where homes were burned to their foundations. Her home was the second hole from the barricade.
"The news spread that I could go down and have a look at my house and see if there is any belongings, but looking at this, I don't think there will be any belongings left," she said.
"There were a few of my dad's gifts and a few of my grandma's gifts and so many things in the house which I had for years. I had all the silverware and everything which I was thinking I can get. But there's no hope right now."
Around the corner, Susan Barron and her family were also mourning the loss of sentimental items.
Her home is still standing, but her garage out back was destroyed.
"My husband had a lot of tools and antique things from his grandfather in the garage and he's still very hurt by the loss. It's things that aren't replaceable," said Barron, a retired police officer and paramedic.
Barron's daughter lives in the basement and she doesn't know whether sump pumps to keep water out worked.
She figures it'll be a few months at least before she and her family can live in the house again.
Maggie Macdonald checked on her nearby home and found it undamaged, but she wasn't rejoicing.
She was astonished by all of the destruction.
"I got into my vehicle and looked straight ahead and my heart just dropped to the ground," Macdonald said, struggling to hold back tears.
"We have friends that are right now going through a lot of stress."
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