By Nia Williams
FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta (Reuters) - Thousands of evacuees who fled a massive wildfire that hit Fort McMurray made an emotional return to their homes on Wednesday, facing a massive cleanup and uncertainty over their safety as the devastated Canadian oil city begins to rebuild.
More than 90,000 fled the remote northern Alberta city as the fire hit a month ago, engulfing some neighborhoods while sparing others. Premier Rachel Notley told reporters about half of the 15,000 expected to return on Wednesday had done so by noon as a two-week staged re-entry begins.
Standing outside one of the few supermarkets open in Fort McMurray, Jessica Kogitowisz, 23, breathed a sigh of relief as she talked about her townhouse, untouched by the disaster. But for her brother-in-law standing next to her, the news was bad: his house charred to the ground.
"It's definitely emotional. I'm happy to be back. The town is our home, but their personal home where they go every day is gone," Kogitowisz said of her relative.
The blaze, which destroyed about 10 percent of the city's homes, was a blow to a community already reeling from a two-year oil price slump. It shuttered more than a million barrels per day of crude production, though some facilities have resumed operations even as acrid smoke lingered in the air.
In some areas south of Fort McMurray, the wildfire is still burning out of control. The blaze now covers about 581,695 hectares (1.43 million acres).
Scorched trees lined Highway 63, the only route into the city. An expected crush of traffic failed to materialize as residents slowly made their way back to the devastated area. On one overpass, a huge Canadian flag hung between two fire trucks. Billboards along the road welcomed residents home.
Authorities have told those returning to bring two weeks' worth of food, water and prescription medication. Returnees have also been told to scrub walls, and clean all clothing and bedding, upholstery of items that remained in their houses during the evacuation.
The area is under a boil-water advisory and the local hospital's capabilities are limited. Some stores, restaurants and gas stations were open on Wednesday. Notley has said conditions will be assessed on a daily basis and the re-entry schedule may be adjusted if the situation changes.
"Today is not the end of this story. It is not a return to normal life and it's not yet a celebration. There is a still a lot of work to recover and rebuild. This will be the work of years, not weeks," Notley told reporters on Wednesday.
Mark Hebert was relieved to find his house in downtown Fort McMurray in good shape, but his partner was worried about air quality.
"We are going to clean some stuff up here and try and cut the grass, grab a few things," the 51-year-old Hebert said. "It's 50-50 whether we stay here tonight."
Despite the devastation, residents praised the efforts of firefighters and service workers who kept the situation from being even worse.
Regional officials noted that while 10 percent of residents lost their homes, 30 of firefighters who battled the blaze lost their dwellings.
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Calgary and Topher Seguin in Fort McMurray; Writing by Alan Crosby; Editing by Sandra Maler)