FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta — One neighborhood in this oil sands town was a scene of utter devastation with incinerated homes completely leveled down to their foundation from a wildfire that Fort McMurray's fire chief called a "beast ... a fire like I've never seen in my life."
But the wider picture was more optimistic as Fire Chief Darby Allen said 85 percent of Canada's main oil sands city remains intact.
Alberta's Premier Rachel Notley got her first look at the devastation in Fort McMurray on Monday after cold temperatures and light rain had stabilized the massive wildfire to a point where officials could begin planning to get thousands of evacuated residents back.
The break in the weather has officials optimistic they've reached a turning point on getting a handle on the massive wildfire. The temperature dipped to 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) on Monday following a week where the region had unseasonably warm temperatures.
Notley flew in Monday morning to meet with local officials and took a ground tour of the town before holding a news conference at the emergency center, her spokeswoman said.
More than 40 journalists were allowed into Fort McMurray on a bus escorted by police. The forest surrounding the road into town was still smoldering and there were abandoned cars. Only the sign remained at a Super 8 Motel and Denny's restaurant on the edge of town.
The Beacon Hill neighborhood was a scene of utter devastation with homes burned down to their foundation.
Allen said at one point the fire jumped across a road in Beacon Hill that is 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 meters) wide.
"It jumped that without thinking about it. This was a beast. It was an animal. It was a fire like I've never seen in my life," Allen said on the media bus.
But Allen said the firefighters managed to save 85 percent of the homes and buildings in Fort McMurray including the entire downtown district. He said in the early stages he feared that as much as half the city could burn down.
"I just want to let the people know that we're in pretty good shape," he said. "Typical of the damaged areas you'll see structures that are completely gone and structures that are intact."
Allen said at one point the fire raced down a hill to the corner of a bank, but firefighters were able to halt the encroaching flames at the bank. Had they failed to stop it there, the fire would have destroyed the downtown district, he said.
But other neighborhoods were not spared. In the Abesand district, townhouses were completely destroyed, and charred children's bikes could be seen in backyards. A parking facility was burned to the ground.
More than 80,000 people have left Fort McMurray, where the fire has burned 1,600 homes and other buildings since it broke out last Tuesday in the heart of Canada's oil sands region.
Gas has been turned off, the power grid is damaged and water is undrinkable in Fort McMurray. More than 250 power company workers are trying to restore the grid and assess the gas infrastructure.
"We are now turning our minds more and more to the recovery effort," Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said.
"This is going to be a long term endeavor because at the moment there is no power and gas, no palatable watery supply. There's dangerous hazardous material all over the place. It's going to take a very careful, thoughtful effort to get that community back in a livable condition," Goodale said.
There is no timeline to return evacuees, but the provincial government sent in a team Monday to do preliminary planning.
David Yurdiga, who represents the area in Parliament, toured Fort McMurray on Sunday and said he was now more optimistic.
"We'll be back on our feet a lot quicker than I thought we would be," he told reporters at the roadblock just south of the city. "All of the key infrastructure is in place. Our hospital is standing. Our schools are standing. Our treatment plant is functioning."
It rained on Sunday, and with cooler temperatures forecast for the next three or four days, Alberta fire official Chad Morrison said firefighters should be able to put out hot spots to further protect Fort McMurray. He said he was pleased that they are making great progress.
"It definitely is a positive point for us, for sure," said Morrison, who acknowledged the fight to contain the flames had a reached a turning point.
"We're obviously very happy that we've held the fire better than expected," he said. "This is great firefighting weather. We can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it."
Notley said the wildfire grew much more slowly than was feared and was now about 620 square miles (1,600 square kilometers) in size.
Officials completed the transport of 25,000 residents out of work camps north of the city after police oversaw a procession of thousands of vehicles Friday and Saturday, and a mass airlift of thousands of evacuees was also employed from the oil mine airfields. The bulk of the city's evacuees moved south after Tuesday's mandatory evacuation order, but 25,000 evacuees moved north and were housed in camps normally used for oil sands workers.
No deaths or injuries have been reported from the fire itself. But the fire has forced as much as a third of Canada's oil output offline and was expected to impact an economy already hurt by the fall in oil prices.
"We're just beginning to become aware of the economic impacts," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
Trudeau said there is no need to accept any international assistance in the fire-fighting effort because of the help being provided from other Canadian provinces. Russia had offered water bombers. The prime minister also encouraged Canadians to continue to donate to the Red Cross and said his government will invest in the city to rebuild.
Alberta's oil sands have the third-largest reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Its workers largely live in Fort McMurray, a former frontier outpost-turned-city whose residents mostly come from elsewhere in Canada.
Morrison said the fire has not reached the Suncor or Syncrude oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray, and that the mines to the north are not threatened. Notley said there will be a meeting Tuesday with the energy industry to discuss the state of the facilities and the impact on operations.
Suncor said late Sunday it is beginning to implement its plan for a return to operations. Analysts at Goldman Sachs estimated the wildfire has reduced Canada's oil sands production by a million barrels per day, but said in a note the lack of damage to the oil mines could allow for a fast ramp up in production. They noted the complete evacuation of personnel and of the city could point to a more gradual recovery.
Alberta Health Services Dr. Chris Sikora said a viral stomach virus broke out among 40 to 50 evacuees at the Northlands evacuation center in Edmonton where 600 people are staying and where five to six thousand meals a day are being prepared for the thousands of evacuees. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. They were isolated.
Gillies reported from Toronto.