6 months after wildfire, Fort McMurray faces long road to recovery

Nearly six months after one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history, no one in Fort McMurray has a clear idea just how many people have returned to the city.

In hard-hit Abasands neighbourhood, many intend to rebuild but some won't be coming back

Should I stay or should I go now?

7 years ago
Duration 1:12
CBC News looks at indicators that show whether residents have returned to Fort McMurray after one of Canada's largest evacuations. Here's what the city's schools look like.

Nearly six months after one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history, no one in Fort McMurray seems to have a clear idea of just how many residents have returned to the fire-ravaged city.

About 88,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities in the wake of the fire, which first reached the city on May 3.

Residents who lost their homes remain scattered in distant cities, and whether they intend to return or rebuild may be dependent on the health of the oilsands sector.

The local public school board says attendance was down by 270 students, or about four per cent, as of Sept. 30. Attendance at Catholic schools was down by 400 students this fall, about 6.5 per cent.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has tried to keep track of how many people have returned.

As of Sept. 2, a total of 77,158 residents had registered at information centres in the municipality. But officials say those numbers don't offer a complete or reliable picture, since some may have returned without registering, while others may have registered more than once.

Though the city says 77,158 residents registered at information centres, it warns some of those people may have checked in more than once. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Despite the lack of firm numbers, there are indications that for some residents things are beginning to return to normal.

The Alberta Electric System Operator said power usage dropped off during the evacuation period in early May.

"Then by late May and into June that load recovers, and is back up to where it was prior to the fires," an AESO spokesman said in an email. "It is also now in line with load from the same time of year last year."

The AESO couldn't tell CBC News how much of that usage was residential, commercial or industrial.

An estimated 2,793 homes or apartments were damaged or destroyed by the wildfires. As of Oct. 20, the municipality had issued only 198 building permits.

To get a sense of things, CBC News visited homes this week on one street in Abasand, among the worst-hit neighbourhoods.

'Like a small town'

For years, Aspenhill Drive was known for its annual summer block party.

Each year, the 12 families would meet days in advance to plan the menu, the children's games and the annual fireworks display. Neighbours describe it as "the event" of the summer in the subdivision.

One year they barbecued a whole pig. But usually it's rotisserie turkey, hamburgers and steaks on paper plates.

A quick survey of residents found that the owners of 10 of the 12 homes on the drive say they intend to rebuild. 

On Aspenhill Drive, 10 out of 12 families say they intend to rebuild. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Sherilee Crawley described the wider Abasand neighbourhood as a tight-knit community.

"It was almost like a small town," said Crawley, whose family is one of three that haven't yet returned to Aspenhill Drive.

Her husband and two children evacuated to Grande Prairie, Alta.,  during the wildfire. She said she's not sure if the family will return to Fort McMurray. Her teenage children have settled in Grande Prairie, a place they used to call home, and she's not sure whether it's worth uprooting them.

"A lot depends on the Fort McMurray economy," she said.

Amber Atkinson is one of the Aspenhill Drive residents who can't wait to start reconstruction.

Her husband and daughter are staying in a two-bedroom condo in downtown Fort McMurray.

Wall-to-ceiling windows in the condo make their temporary living space cold, she said.

Tough decisions about whether Fort McMurray residents should return

7 years ago
Duration 1:06
Amber Atkinson is nervous about rebuilding her home that was destroyed by Fort McMurray's wildfire. She’s worried the streets “small town” feel won’t be there as neighbours decide to leave.

Atkinson said she's worried Aspenhill Drive will lose its "small town" feel, if some neighbours decide not to return and rebuild.

"I'll be honest," she said, holding back tears. "Not knowing if we will have that family again makes me a little nervous, and I think a lot of us are feeling that way.

"I think it's going to be difficult. Our neighbours were there for over 25 years."

Bill McCrone lives three houses up the street from Atkinson. More than just sentiment is drawing his family back, he said.

"When you are driving out of town being chased by flames there was certainly a feeling of, 'This is our home, we want to come back to our home,'" McCrone said.

"But in time, after you see the ruin, and the dust settles and the reality sets in, you go, 'Who wants this?' "

Schools across Fort McMurray have seen a decline in attendance this fall. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

McCrone said his wife, three cats and a dog are in an apartment. They've thought about cashing out and buying a new house in a bigger city with more amenities.

But his job in the oilsands, and insurance restrictions, will keep him in Fort McMurray.

"We're at peace with coming back to Fort McMurray," he said. "I'm OK with coming back, because I do have activities, friends and a life that's here."

Though Aspenhill Drive residents are, for now, scattered across Fort McMurray and other places, they still make an effort to communicate. Residents chat regularly on a Facebook group they set up to stay in touch.

Most say it will be years before their street returns to anything close to normal.

It will also take time for Fort McMurray officials to know for sure how many residents have returned, or plan to.

They may have to wait for the next municipal census, scheduled for 2017 or 2018.
The graph above shows the electrical load coming off the transmission system, with 2015 in red and 2016 in blue. (Alberta Electric System Operator)