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'This is a choice': Fort McMurray residents brave the winter cold in their RVs

As rental costs fall and vacancy rates increase, living in an RV through the long winter months has become a choice — and a luxury.

'We don't live in here because we have to'

Keely Dunford lives in an RV with her husband and dog. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Some people in Fort McMurray used to live year-round in recreational vehicles because of a housing shortage.

Now, as rental costs fall and vacancy rates increase, living in an RV through the long winter months has become a choice — and a luxury.

Sonia Kozlow and her husband George, a heavy-duty mechanic at Suncor, own a farm north of Edmonton. But this winter they'll be living in their RV in Fort McMurray, something they've grown accustomed to over the last six years.

"We don't live in here because we have to. This is a choice," Kozlow said. The 12-metre-long home comes equipped with electricity, a TV, bathroom and enough space to accommodate about 10 people.

And while most people assume it's cheaper to live in an RV, Kozlow said it's actually more expensive. 

"I imagine you probably get an apartment in town cheaper," she said. But that's not why she and her husband are living at Centennial RV Park, she added.

"We're not paying somebody else's mortgage. We have our privacy."

Sonia Kozlow spent a number of weeks preparing her RV for the harsh Fort McMurray winter. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

They pay $1,390 a month to park their RV, and during the winter they spend about $400 a month on propane to keep it warm. 

Kozlow said there are some risks to living in an RV, the biggest being that the pipes could freeze. She put a skirt around the base of the trailer and said she watches the heat trace — a system used to maintain and monitor the temperature of pipes — constantly.

RV parks in the region used to be full over the winter, housing workers and families. But with the downturn in oil prices, many have left Fort McMurray, including former patrons of the parks.

Rip Pridday, manager of Centennial RV Park, said before the wildfire in 2016 there was a five-month waiting list to get one of the 85 spots. Right now, only 10 of those spots are full.

"The rents have dropped so drastically in this town that it's affordable now to rent a place," Pridday said.

"When we first moved here, before the fire and the drop in the oil, we were renting a place, one bedroom, for $2,500 a month and it was all we could find."

The hardest part about the winter is keeping the pumps warm. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

Pridday's wife Sue Greenberg, who manages the RV park with him, said many patrons own other properties and live in the park by choice. "A lot of the trailers are pushing the $100,000 mark," she said. "They're quite the glamping units."

Greenberg added that many people don't want to be tied into a lease because "work can end at the drop of a hat."

Keely Dunford, 26, lives a few sites down from Kozlow. She and her husband moved into Centennial RV Park in 2016, after the fire. They were always interested in the "ultimate kind of lifestyle," Dunford said.

Sonia Kozlow and her husband have spent the last 6 years living in an RV over the winter. (Axel Tardieu/Radio-Canada)

She said they've lived in basements, apartments and one day they thought to themselves, "Hey, why don't we live in a van?"

The pair started with a Winnebago and later upgraded to the fifth-wheel trailer they're in now. 

"We may not be living in a mansion, but this is our mansion right now," Dunford said. 

Matthew Eisentraut, owner of Surmont Creek Campground at Gregoire Lake, 40 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, said when he first opened in 2011 he would have about 50 per cent occupancy over the winter.

Now only about 12 of his 48 sites are full in the winter months.

"One worries about whether one can pay one's bills," Eisentraut said.

With files from Axel Tardieu

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