Fort McMurray Fire: Stunned Alberta Leaders Get First Look at Devastation

Image: Burned truck in Fort McMurray
A burned-out pickup truck and house remain Monday in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta.Jonathan Hayward / AP

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By Alex Johnson

Regional leaders and journalists got their first close-up look Monday at the cataclysmic landscape left behind by the raging wildfire in Alberta.

Authorities raised the number of structures reported lost in the half-million-acre inferno near Fort McMurray to 2,400, up by 50 percent from Sunday.

But Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said after Monday's bus tour of the area that "we've saved almost 25,000 [structures], including the hospital, municipal buildings and every functioning school."

A woman takes photos Monday of the burned remains of a house in the Abasand neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta.Chris Wattie / Reuters

The tour revealed a blackened, charred moonscape of smoky ruins, damage so stark that Intact Financial, Canada's largest insurer, called "unprecedented."

Charles Brindamour, Intact's chief executive officer, said in a statement that the company has sent more than 1,000 claims workers to the city to help customers who've lost their homes, cars and businesses.

Notley acknowledged, "It was quite overwhelming in some spots." But she said, "It reinforced to me how much work and how much success was achieved over the last few days by those heroic firefighters."

A burned car rests in the garage of a destroyed home Monday in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta.Jonathan Hayward / AP

Notley promised that Fort McMurray would emerge "with real structural resilience, with most of its critical infrastructure preserved."

"They will be rebuilt," she promised.

Related: Officials Hail Turning Point in Fort McMurray Wildfire Fight

But it will be a long, hard slog, she said, noting that gas and water service, waste disposal, health care "and much more" still need to be reestablished.

A burned-out barbecue and swing stand Monday in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta.Jonathan Hayward / AP

Regional Fire Chief Darby Allen said that's because the fire is unprecedented in his experience.

"I've never seen anything like this," Allen said. "No one's ever seen anything like this. They're rewriting their formulas on how fires behave based on this fire."

An emotional Melissa Blake, mayor of the surrounding Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, mourned the loss of many homes in the community, but at the same time, she rejoiced that "almost 90 percent are still up," and she vowed that area would rebound.

Burned ground surrounds a sign welcoming visitors to Fort McMurray, Alberta, during a media tour Monday of the city.Ryan Remiorz / AP

"I have absolute faith that we will have our community back," Blake said. "I am absolutely certain that one day soon — maybe not as soon as we would want, but soon — we will be able to call this place home."

Notley said it would be at least two weeks before any kind of schedule could be drawn up for residents to start to return and many more weeks before Fort McMurray could be considered safe.

"But it is going to be made safe," she declared. "It is a home you are going to return to."