Failing slopes foil rebuilding efforts after Fort McMurray wildfire

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo worries unstable slopes could threaten homes or lead to a catastrophic landslide after torrential rainfall.

Municipality fears loss of trees has left slopes in Waterways subdivision unstable

In tears, Grigory Litvinov say, he has nothing but hope the municipality will buy his unsafe property at a price somewhere near its pre-fire value. He says he's running out of options. 1:30

Grigory Litvinov and his wife bought their first home ever in Fort McMurray in 2016. Thirty-three days later it burned to the ground in the devastating May wildfire.

"I still had boxes in the garage," Litvinov said, standing in his muddy lot. "It was our first home. A lot of dreams and wishes went up in smoke."

Now, 11 months later Litvinov has learned he cannot begin rebuilding because with all the trees gone, the slope behind his lot is failing.

A geotechnical survey of Fort McMurray's Waterways subdivision found the hill overlooking the community is moving. (David Thurton/CBC)

The municipality is worried slope movement could damage newly built homes or worse, days of torrential rainfall could result in a catastrophic landslide.

The municipality has advised Litvinov and 32 other homeowners against rebuilding in Waterways. It's surveying other problem areas as well.

Mike Rosen, president of Tree Canada, which has offered to replant trees in the city, said the loss of so much forest cover means the region lost an important system of roots that keeps hills in place and absorbs rainfall and snow melt which can destabilize slopes.

"The fear then, in the case of Fort McMurray, is that as a result of the loss of forest cover, the amount of erosion and soil instability will increase."

Flooding, wildfire and now landslides

Waterways, which sprouted up in the early 1900s, is one of Fort McMurray's oldest communities and rebuilding the subdivision to 21st century planning standards is proving difficult.

Erin O'Neill, chief planner of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and its operations manager of the recovery task force, said she was prepared for the challenge.

"I did expect it would be this hard, given Waterways is the oldest community and given it had the floodplain issues," O'Neill said.

After the fire, the municipality said it would not allow many Waterways residents to rebuild their homes, as the community sits on a floodplain and no longer meets building standards that insist development occurs only in areas that can withstand severe flooding.

After a commitment to install flood prevention measures and promises of disaster relief funding, the province allowed the municipality to issue building permits for the community.

Grigory Litvinov visits his Waterways lot. (David Thurton/CBC)

However in March, a geo-technical assessment warned that building in the higher elevations of the community was risky because of soil movement.

The municipality is now investigating options such as building retaining walls or buying out residential properties.

Sweeping views

The sweeping valley views of Waterways convinced Margo Firman to buy a lot in 2001 and build a home.

"Just when you looked out you could see the river valley, the bends, jet boats going up and down," Firman said. "You could see a good portion of downtown. It was really pretty."

Now that a municipal report confirms it’s unsafe for some residents to rebuild in Waterways, Margo Firman says, she won’t rebuild yet, even though she can. 0:54

During community consultations in September, Firman was one of the first residents to raise concerns about slope stability in Waterways.

"I asked the question, 'What sort of investigations are taking place into the stability of the slope?' " Firman said. "It needed to be done before anyone moves forward."

Spring runoff pools in Waterways. The municipality worries the lack of trees will increase erosion and hill movement. (David Thurton/CBC)

Financial hardship

Now that a municipal report confirms it's unsafe for some residents to rebuild, Firman said she's thinking twice about rebuilding her home.

"Would I like to come back to Waterways? Certainly," Firman said. "Will I do so in the face of future potential hardship or difficulties or litigation? No. I won't."

Firman said her insurance policy allows some flexibility and would allow her family to accept a buyout without taking a major financial hit.

Grigory Litnov purchased the home that was on this lot days before a wildfire tore through the community. (David Thurton/CBC)

Litvinov, on the other hand, cannot say the same.

With his current reduced property valuation and a meagre insurance pay out, he worries he would not receive enough money to repay his $440,000 mortgage.

In tears, he said he can only hope the municipality will buy his property at a price somewhere near its pre-fire value.

"It's not an option for me and the other residents to just be left," Litvinov said. "I want our government officials to step up because this city was literally built on the people of Waterways."

O'Neill said her team is currently looking at all options for rebuilding and buying out resident properties.

When it comes to purchasing properties, the city will take into consideration their pre-wildfire value, O'Neil said.

But the municipality, she said, cannot guarantee the outcome will be what residents like Litvinov are hoping for. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.