The white snow makes the blackened trees stand out like beacons along the highway into Fort McMurray. The remnants of last year's fires are everywhere: construction and restoration, burnt-out swaths of forest, signs welcoming residents back home.

But looming above it all is concern about the prolonged impact of low oil prices and the economic reality that awaits after the rebuild is done.

The good news is the Alberta economy is finally set to rebound. Economists predict the province's GDP could grow by as much as 2.8 per cent in 2017.

But in stark contrast to the good years, the recovery will be led by agriculture, agri-food and tourism. The energy sector will continue to struggle as the price of oil is expected to remain somewhere between $50 and $60 a barrel. 

"We check the price of oil every day — everyone here does," says Melanie Antoine, owner of an oilfield maintenance company called A.P.E. Maintenance. 

Oil price 'affects everyone'

She's not technically in the oil industry, but she's dependent on it. And so are thousands of others.

"It affects everyone here," she says. "It affects all the businesses. It affects the whole economy."

Melanie Antoine

Melanie Antoine was able to keep her oilfield maintenance company afloat in Fort McMurray after the price of oil plunged — but then came the wildfire. (CBC)

They say every job created in the oilsands creates another four in various support industries. But the reverse is also true: When the price of oil plunged, thousands of industry workers were laid off, and those layoffs spread through the region, hitting many people in offshoot industries.

Antoine launched her company in 2008, during the global economic crisis spawned on Wall Street. She built the business out of her home and rode a wave of economic fortune as oil soared above $100 a barrel. When the price of oil fell off a cliff, Antoine and her husband kept the business above water through rough times. 

Then came the fire.

It swept through town in the first days of May, pummelling a region already in crisis mode.

Antoine's business was among 2,400 buildings and homes destroyed. Her entire staff was laid off. They had to start from scratch.

Now, nearly a year later, A.P.E. has reopened its doors. They have 40 people on staff and they are back to work.

But there are still a lot of unknowns.

'It's a struggle'

"It's a struggle, but we're making adjustments," says Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Those adjustments were already underway before the fires hit. But she says the sweeping devastation they brought "was a whole new element."

Usually the economic fallout of a crisis like the Fort McMurray fire follows a familiar pattern: everything is shut down in the immediate emergency but then economic activity kicks back in, slowly ramping up over time. The rebuilding adds to growth and has a long tail, helping to soften the blow until things return to normal.

The difference this time is things aren't going to return to normal. The region rebuilding from the fires is still reeling from the collapse in oil prices. The economics textbooks don't have a traditional model for what's happening here.

The rebuilding efforts are going to take time. Through 2017, the Conference Board of Canada expects rebuilding will add 0.4 per cent to provincial GDP. But it won't make up for lost activity in the energy sector. And it certainly won't make up for all those lost jobs.

'They've got to keep going'

Jackie Forrest of ARC Energy Research Institute says this isn't to say the energy sector is doomed, or that it won't bounce back. She says it will. Indeed, she says the rebound is underway.

Melissa Blake

Fort McMurray residents continue to face the downturn in the oil industry as they rebuild their wildfire-ravaged city. 'It's a struggle, but we're making adjustments,' says the area's mayor, Melissa Blake. (Screenshot)

"Industry revenue is up about 40 per cent. Cash flow coming out of this industry has doubled. Overall, the industry is in a much better position [than a year ago]" says Forrest

But the bottom was so low that it will take a long time to rise again. Given all the unknowns around OPEC, the U.S. shale oil industry and the myriad factors that go into global oil prices, no one can say with any real certainty what the next "new normal" will look like.

So for now, residents in Fort McMurray rebuild and reopen their businesses. This is a resilient part of the world. Albertans know the boom-and-bust cycle as intimately as almost anyone.

There is a sense of faith here, a belief that whatever comes, they can make the most of it.

"They've got to keep going," says Blake speaking about locals and oil companies alike. "They've got to do it better and more efficiently. But they've got to keep going."