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Wildfire: Website lets Fort McMurray residents see the state of their home

With the Fort McMurray fire zone in Alberta still not safe to enter, many residents who fled to evacuation centers are wondering what’s become of their home.

In a move that for evacuees could turn out to be as harrowing as it is helpful, local government officials have launched a website showing recent satellite imagery of the city so worried residents can check on the condition of their property.

More than 80,000 people were forced to evacuate Fort McMurray when a huge wildfire swept through the community earlier this month. Estimates suggest around 20 percent, or roughly 1,600 properties, were destroyed in the disaster, the cause of which is still under investigation.

Addressing the evacuees directly, Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said in a release that officials were committed to providing information “as soon as we can,” adding that the imagery would “help us begin to answer the questions you have about the state of your homes and community.”

At first glance, the website’s imagery resembles that of Google Earth, though look more closely and the sight of smoke hanging in the air offers the first clue that all is not well on the ground. Zoom in and you’ll soon see clusters of homes ravaged by the wildfire.

Larivee said the imagery is intended to provide “a high-level satellite overview of the status of the city,” but noted that houses that appear to be intact “should not be considered undamaged.”

In a somewhat chilling note that emphasizes the true scale of the disaster and the impact on those involved, Larivee said, “Viewing these images may be traumatic,” in the next sentence offering the number of a 24/7 mental health help line.

The minister promised higher-resolution imagery “in the days ahead,” suggesting it could show enough detail to assist property owners with insurance claims, recovery-eligibility funding, and other recovery actions. The content can be viewed by hitting the link at the foot of this page.

Related: Canada is using drones to discover the cause of its massive wildfire

One Fort McMurray resident who won’t be needing the satellite imagery is James O’Reilly. After fleeing the city, he accessed his home security camera’s live feed, watching in horror as the flames destroyed his property.