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Life in a boomtown

This blog is the third and final entry in a series by our videojournalist, Saša Petricic, who travelled to Fort McMurray, Alberta to cover the local response to the international outcry by environmentalists against Alberta's oilsands.

If you spend any time in Fort McMurray, you quickly realize that the overwhelming preoccupation isn't global warming or what environmentalists in, say, Copenhagen are discussing, or even the weather (the forecast for this time of year is - you guessed it - cold).

No, it's all about lineups. The bane of a boomtown's existence.

It starts in the early morning darkness, as the traffic jam stretches from Fort McMurray's suburbs to the oil sands plants. Four lanes, bumper to bumper, trucks and SUVs to the horizon. It can take hours to cover 40 or 50 kilometres, more if you line up for a double-double at the Tim Horton's drive-through.

The main street, Franklin Avenue, isn't any better.

And there's no shortage of grumbling in the long lineups at Walmart or Canadian Tire or the grocery stores.

The fact is that this town is bursting at the seams, even now, when it's not nearly as busy as it was a year ago. With a population of about 100 thousand, it's a far cry from the village of two thousand when the first oilsands plant opened here in the late 1960's. Today, it is by far the largest city north of Edmonton, anywhere in Canada.

It's growing as steadily as the world's oil consumption - right before my eyes, as I stand in the northern outskirts. The new subdivisions I see could be anywhere in North America, except these days, they're going up faster in Fort McMurray. Some 1,800 new homes are built here every year. That's about five a day. And they still can't keep up with demand, as house prices rival those in any major Canadian city, averaging over $600,000.

Remember, this is far north of Calgary or Edmonton. Even north of Copenhagen.

The infrastructure can barely keep up. Especially Highway 63, the main road that connects Fort McMurray to Edmonton and the string of oilsands plants north and south of town.

"For what it's worth," Justin Holmes tells me, "I really respect the environment. But I'm a little more concerned about if I try to leave town - am I going to survive that trip? That's a very real concern."

Holmes is the editor of the local daily newspaper.

"We report on fatalities on Highway 63 all the time because of head-on collisions," he says.

Various twinning and expansion projects by federal and provincial governments just can't match the drive for oil. The companies themselves pay for many roads, as well as community centres and sports facilities.

Some of these are among the best in the country, with multiple hockey and curling rinks, basketball courts and even an indoor waterpark. The hiking trails and wildlife nearby are also stunning.

As with any boomtown, though, particularly one with lots of money, there is a dark side, too. Many complain about the easy availability of drugs, and a ready market among some of those who work in the oil fields. Yes, there is testing, but more than one person explained how easy it is to beat it. For that matter, more than one person offered to sell me drugs, right next to the Oil Sands Hotel.

Fort McMurray's challenges aren't unlike those of any Canadian city, though their relative scale and the speed with which they've grown may be surprising. Especially for a place that still thinks of itself as a small town, pumped up by the world's thirst for oil.

Read Part 2 of Sasa's blog series, Oilsands: the view on the ground

Watch Sasa's video Oilsands: the view on the ground

Read Part 1 of Sasa's blog series, Alberta's oilsands: back in the spotlight