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An emotional homecoming for returning Fort McMurray residents

Fridges to be disposed of sit outside a home in the Wood Buffalo neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on Friday, June 3, 2016. Residents began returning home this week and companies are resuming operations after Alberta wildfires forced the evacuation of more than 80,000 people from Fort McMurray and knocked more than 1 million barrels of production a day offline this month.

Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg

For the returning residents of Fort McMurray, the past week held a full range of emotions. After a month in exile, some of the city's more than 80,000 evacuees came back to survey homes that suffered major damage and neighbourhoods that no longer resemble the ones they left.

Others found comfort in their ability to get their houses back in livable shape by going about tasks that no longer seem mundane. such as mowing the lawn or buying groceries at a familiar store.

Meet a few Fort McMurrayites as they return to a city that won't be the same for long time to come.

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A hot market for fridges

For the past 24 years, Gerry Wong has been a staple of Fort McMurray's downtown strip, selling the expensive electronics that fill many of the northern Alberta city's homes. While his store survived the inferno, the smell of campfire still pervades the TV sets and home theatres.

On May 3, he stood in the parking lot of his McMurray TV Centre and watched as flames enveloped trees on the ridges that surround downtown. He was one of the last to flee the city, leaving as dusk fell and the fires were still spreading.

"If it hadn't been for a shift in the winds that pushed the fire back, downtown would have been lost and we wouldn't be coming back for years. Can you imagine a Canada without Fort McMurray?" he asked.

The 45-year-old's store is now selling refrigerators for the first time. Three weeks ago Mr. Wong says he knew nothing about the appliances; now he's dealing with a steady stream of locals he knows by first name who need to replace their mouldy units.

While his house wasn't damaged by the flames, he says that the city will have a long rebuilding ahead of it. "Man, it looks like a war zone," he said.

'Now we're the ones in need'

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Shingles were missing on the roof and the back porch had been broken in half as bulldozers dug a fire guard, but the damage to Bela and Nilesh Mehta's home seemed limited from afar.

But what the couple and their two sons found was barely habitable. Notices on the front door warned them that the use of their home was restricted. The entire neighbourhood beyond their back door had been turned to ash.

Inside, the ceiling above 15-year-old Dhvanil Mehta's bed collapsed. On the whiteboard on his wall is his homework for May 3, largely hidden behind fallen drywall and insulation. In a neighbouring room occupied by older brother Taral Mehta, 25, fungus is growing on clothes in the closet. The house suffered serious damage from the water sprayed on adjoining properties that were on fire.

"This is so hard," said Ms. Mehta, walking around the house the family has owned for only three years. "We thought we would come and help people in need, but now we're the ones in need."

The family is now headed back to Edmonton, where they've rented an apartment. They grabbed a statue of the Hindu god Shrinathji as they fled. It could be months before they're able to put it back in the family's shrine.

Chicken, with a side of positive vibrations

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Maxine Willocks and Jeff Peddle are helping to rebuild Fort McMurray, one plate of jerk chicken at a time.

The couple run Chez Max, one of the first restaurants to reopen after the disaster. The cuisine is Jamaican, and Ms. Willocks insists it's good for the soul, and by extension, good for Fort Mac as it recovers. "It's memories. When people go to Jamaica, they think of good times, relaxation, positive vibes, tranquility. You feel like you're coming to a friend's house, because that's what Jamaica is," she said, as classic Bob Marley tunes played in the background. "It's chill, it's no problem, man. That's the positivity of what we do."

It's been no mean feat to get the popular eatery running. Ms. Willocks and Mr. Peddle came back to refrigerators full of spoiled food, enough to fill several dumpsters. This week, without staff to help her, Ms. Willocks has had to cook all the roti, curried goat and other specialties, even on Friday when the restaurant was closed so the couple could cater lunch for first responders.

Wearing his heart on his fence

Across the street from an information centre for evacuees, Brian Noel is showing his gratitude – and his ire. He attached tarps to his fence and painted his expressions of thanks to WestJet Airlines Ltd., which helped him and his wife, Cynthia, return from vacation in Newfoundland when fire raged into Fort McMurray, and to the Alberta cities of Edmonton and Leduc, where he had stayed in exile for the past month.

"My wife woke me up on the third [of May], saying, 'Brian, Fort McMurray's on fire.' I said, 'No way – when we left they had it contained,' " he said.

Ms. Noel wanted to get back to Edmonton to see their two grown children, but found that Air Canada – which had sold them round-trip tickets – would not make an exception to its policies and send them home without hundreds of dollars in charges, he said. WestJet flew the couple back to Alberta for $500, and put them in first class. Hence, Mr. Noel's fence plaudits for the airline, and what was soon to be a less-than- flattering mention of Air Canada on the next tarp.

The family home suffered no major damage, though some of friends' places burned. Mr. Noel, a long-time Suncor Energy Inc. employee who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has no plans to leave. "After I graduated, back in 1980, my dad asked me what I wanted. I said, 'Well dad, how about $100, a pair of work boots and a Greyhound bus ticket to Fort McMurray.' I've been here ever since."

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