Thousands of evacuees from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray have begun returning home, after being forced to flee the huge wildfire there a month ago.
Many have travelled back from temporary accommodation in nearby areas in the hope of rescuing their homes, businesses and belongings.
Here, one Fort McMurray resident, 40-year-old Kory Walsh, describes his return on Thursday and the challenges ahead for the people – and pets – of the Canadian oil city.
“I just pulled back into Fort McMurray after being in Edmonton for the past month, following the evacuation.
I’ve never felt better than I did driving back here on the highway today. There were fire trucks parked on the bridges on the way into town, hanging Canadian flags.
If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you don’t have a heart.
There are not a lot of businesses open yet. It is still a voluntary return for many.
I have a pet store that I have to get back off the ground. My wife has already returned and is working and staying at an oil facility 50km north of the city.
My firefighter friend, who’s my business partner, managed to grab the 10 or so pets that we had in the store and evacuate them to other towns, with the help of the local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). They included hedgehogs, gerbils, rabbits, lizards and snakes.
We closed the store before downtown was evacuated. There was a big operation all over town to evacuate pets.
It’s a really big pet community. Now the people and pets are returning to town.
We lost some of our stock, particularly dog food, which accounts for about two-thirds of our business, but the store is still standing, with not really any smoke damage.
We may get some of the pets back but I’m just glad that the other stores were able to take them and they’re safe.
We have to get some emergency insurance quickly to get the business up and running again, as we still have to pay the rent.
My house is also fully intact, luckily. I just went in there for the first time since I evacuated. There is some smoke damage but it’s better than I expected. A lot of homes in the area were damaged, but thankfully the fire somehow skipped my street.
It was pretty emotional going home again. It was quite surreal and heavy. The house was almost as it was when I left that morning I evacuated. Things were thrown all over the place.
There is a big clean-up ahead. But there is some amazing support being given by the whole country. It’s strange being on the receiving end of all that support and love.
My friend and the rest of the firefighters are the real heroes here now. They saved our community. Now we’re going to rebuild it.
The firefighters knocked down about 60-70ft worth of trees behind my house. Not a bad thing as it probably saved my home.
There are still a lot of health concerns and a lot of people are staying away, but it feels good to be one of the first ones back.
Now I’m going to get the doors of my business open as soon as possible.”