Fort McMurray population down nearly 11 per cent since wildfire, census shows

Fort McMurray's first census since the devastating 2016 wildfire suggests the region's population dropped by nearly 11 per cent between 2015 and 2018.

Horse River Wildfire in May 2016 forced the entire region to be evacuated

An aerial view of downtown Fort McMurray taken on March 21, 2018. (David Thurton/CBC)

Fort McMurray's first census since the devastating 2016 wildfire suggests the region's population dropped by nearly 11 per cent over a three-year span.

A census conducted in 2018 recorded an overall population of 111,687, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said Tuesday in a news release.

That total was down from 125,032 residents in 2015.

The census counted permanent residents and the "shadow population," people who generally live in hotels, work camps or temporary accommodations for more than 30 days of the year.

The shadow population decreased by 14.9 per cent over the three-year period, the census found, from 43,084 people in 2015 to 36,678 in 2018.

The cencus was the Fort McMurray region’s first official population count since the 2016 wildfire. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The census found that 75,009 people live full-time in Fort McMurray. That was down from 81,948 permanent residents counted in 2015.

The ferocious Horse River Wildfire, which caused catastrophic destruction, emptied Fort McMurray and surrounding communities for more than a month in May 2016.

When residents were finally permitted to return, many had to wait several months because their homes had been destroyed or had to be cleaned and repaired after smoke and ash blanketed the area.

Many residents never returned.

Until now, it wasn't clear how many.

"As the wildfire had significant impacts on the region's population and housing, the primary goal of Census 2018 was to obtain an accurate and reliable count of the region's permanent population, shadow population and housing stock," the news release said.

Fort McMurray census snapshot

  • Overall population 2018: 111,687
  • Permanent population 2018: 75,009
  • Shadow population 2018: 36,678

  • Overall population 2015: 125,032
  • Permanent population 2015: 81,948
  • Shadow population 2015: 43,084 

The municipality said it will release a detailed census report during the first quarter of 2019.

No surprise, mayor says

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said he wasn't shocked by the population decline. 

Scott said the 11-per-cent drop was expected given all the region has been through, including the oil price crash in 2014, the 2016 wildfire and now a shortage of pipeline capacity to carry oilsands bitumen to new markets.

"Given all the factors this region has been experiencing, I think it's about where I anticipated this region would be," Scott said.

As a consequence of the population decline, Scott expects a drop in grant funding from the Alberta government. He estimated the region gets about $200 for every person counted to help fund infrastructure and social programs.

Nevertheless, the municipality is in "tremendous good fiscal shape" and can weather grant funding reductions, he said.

Scott said he expects the regional municipality will still be able to pay down its entire debt by the end of his first term in 2021. In December, the municipal debt stood at $385 million.

'We had every intention of moving back'

Sheila Champion is among the thousands of people who no longer call Fort McMurray home.

Her unit in the Hillview Condo complex was destroyed in the wildfire, along with 213 other homes in the subdivision of Abasand. The complex still has not been rebuilt.

Sheila Champion and her husband can’t afford to live in Fort McMurray anymore. Not with mortgage payments on a condo that hasn’t been rebuilt. (Submitted)

Champion and her husband moved to Yellowknife, N.W.T, in 2016 because of layoffs in the oilsands.

"We literally had no options," she said. "We were at the end of our financial rope."

Her husband now works in a diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.

Their rebuild has been plagued by delays and lawsuits, and each owner has been saddled with about $56,000 in special assessments.

Those who haven't declared bankruptcy, Champion said, are struggling to pay their mortgages in homes they haven't lived in for almost three years.

Many of her neighbours in similar situations, she said, have also moved away.

Champion said she hopes her condo will eventually be rebuilt and she and her family will be able to move back to Fort McMurray.

"We had every intention of moving back," she said. "But unfortunately, with the circumstances, it wasn't meant to be."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca