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Fort McMurray evacuees face tough decision about returning home

The Abasand neighbourhood on the west side of Fort McMurray is seen on May 13 after being ravaged by wildfires.

Jason Franson/REUTERS

It was two nights after Debbie Halfyard and her husband, Rick, were evacuated from Fort McMurray that they saw on television what became of their two-storey house when the fire raged into the north part of the city. Footage showed their street, and all that was left were basements and singed debris.

"I said to my husband, 'Look – there goes our house.' And, of course, everybody cried," she said from Deer Lake, Nfld. The couple, and their dog, spent eight days on the road to get there after leaving the work camp to which they and other family members had fled.

With the immensity of the ordeal still sinking in, the Halfyards have had to decide if they want to return to a city that's been home for six years, and which, even before the disaster, had fallen on tough times with the slump in the oil sands industry. Work for Rick had been slow recently. The plan now is to return and rebuild, partly because their children and grandchildren live in Fort McMurray. But they hope to sell the house and move to a rental when it's all done. Whether Debbie returns full time is up in the air.

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To come back or not – it's a tough decision many Fort McMurray residents face in the coming weeks and months. No one can even gauge the task ahead of them until they are allowed back in starting June 1. Many have pledged to take a stand and rebuild. For some, though, the economic downturn and disaster will be the one-two punch that prompts them to move on.

"I have my mom and dad home here in Newfoundland, and I was planning to come home anyhow. My husband will keep working in camp, and if not camp, he'll stay wherever, and I'll just go back and forth – probably go back up for a month at a time," said Ms. Halfyard, 55.

"There certainly will be some people who won't return on a permanent basis," said Allan Vinni, a councillor for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and a 15-year Fort McMurray resident. "Everybody who was living up there will go back to see what happened to their property, or to retrieve stuff. But some business people have told me that people have already informed them that they've quit and they're relocating."

Even before the fire destroyed about 10 per cent of Fort McMurray, oil companies, and contractors that provide a range of services to them, had shed thousands of workers as the drop in crude prices extended past a year-and-a-half and billions of dollars worth of projects were shelved.

The fire that began in early May has added a whole new dimension. It destroyed about 2,400 structures, including many homes, in what is expected to be Canada's costliest natural disaster. As many as 88,000 people fled and remain scattered around the country.

It will be a long time before life returns to normal. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley cautioned that some people, including those with chronic health conditions that require regular treatment, will have to wait until the hospital is back to full operation. For parents with young children, schools won't reopen until September.

The city had become famous as "Fort McMoney," where people arrived to make their fortunes in the oil sands. That meant much of the population stayed in town for just a few years. Many oil sands workers, meanwhile, stay at camps close to the projects, flying in from other locales to work rather than buying homes and setting down roots in Fort McMurray. However, some long-term residents say the bust, and flight of some people that it's prompted, had actually removed some of the stresses that came along with the boomtown population influx.

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Besides the state of their homes, people will decide on resuming life there based on property ownership, employment situation and age. Whether they have children and how deep their roots might be elsewhere will also play major roles, said Sara Dorow, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who has done extensive research on population trends in Fort McMurray.

"There are people who might have moved there in the last number of years, got caught in the downturn, with a house they paid a lot of money for that had been devalued, or had not quite settled in, and might decide not to go back," Prof. Dorow said.

She points out, however, that the very fact that the northern outpost is a tougher place to live than many others makes residents loyal; a large number will apply that civic spirit to the massive rebuilding effort ahead.

Leo Pike is going back. His house wasn't burned, and his job at Royal Dutch Shell PLC's oil sands plant is secure, even with the downturn. He's sure he'll resume his life in Fort McMurray, albeit gradually. For nearly three weeks, Mr. Pike and his wife, Cora, have been staying in their holiday trailer at Kikino Silver Birch Resort on a Métis settlement about 340 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. Resort owners Dave and Shirley Thompson put up hundreds of evacuees in the days after the mass exodus. Not all are as clear about their future as the Pikes.

"I know several families that I talked to are not going back to Fort McMurray to rebuild if their homes are down. I guess it's the uncertainty," Mr. Pike, 54, said at the resort's general store. "There were a lot of people laid off and they were just looking to get back to work. There are a lot of people going back to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Cape Breton and places like that."

For homeowners, leaving a fire-destroyed house requires careful consideration. A resident could take insurance money rather than use it to rebuild a house, but would still be responsible for the remainder of the mortgage. In addition, the claim covers only the house and not the land, so the owner would then have to sell the bare property. Depending on their policies, some may eventually determine that rebuilding, then selling, is a better financial move, though it is unclear what the housing market will be like in Fort McMurray by the time a new house is built. It's been depressed since oil collapsed.

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Many houses in the city, purchased at the top of the market when crude prices were about $100 (U.S.) a barrel, were worth less than their mortgage value.

Mr. Vinni said emotions among his constituents are very raw so soon after the fire and evacuation, and no one has all the facts to make a major life decision such as whether to stay or go.

"I get the sense that everything's going through people's minds," he said from Edmonton. "Even if they're saying they're totally committed to moving back, they still haven't seen what that's going to look like, what the rebuild is going to look like. I don't think we're going to get an accurate idea of what people's responses are going to be until they go back and see what they're dealing with."

With reports from Jacqueline Nelson and Jana G. Pruden

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About the Author
Mergers and Acquisitions Reporter

Jeffrey Jones is a veteran journalist specializing in energy, finance and environment for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, based in Calgary. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2013, he was a senior reporter for Reuters, writing news, features and analysis on energy deals, pipelines, politics and general  topics. More

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