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New homes spring up for Fort McMurray evacuees

Temporary homes for evacuees fleeing the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., have sprung up in the nearby community of Lac La Biche.

Camp of trailer homes donated by Calgary company could house as many as 1,000

Trailers outside Lac La Biche, Alta., are being set up to house as many as 1,000 evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfire 1:36

Lac La Biche's newest neighbourhood is rising out of the ground in a matter of hours.

Its residents are expected to move in almost immediately.

Under the hot, springtime sun, crews are working to place dozens of mobile homes in the soil of the Alberta town, which lies 289 kilometres south of fire-ravaged Fort McMurray. 

In better times these trailers, kitted out with flat-screen TVs and leather couches, would have been occupied by oilsands workers.

But the downturn in the energy sector killed demand for these homes, until this week's out-of-control wildfire made them indispensable. 

"We are trying to get this [camp] up and running as quick as we can," said Steven Stein of Black Diamond Group, the the Calgary-based company that owns the trailers and the land here, both being donated to house evacuees from Fort McMurray.

"Some of the people who will be out of their homes for five or six months will have a place to stay and use the amenities of Lac La Biche."

That's the reality now for many evacuees. Their return will be measured in months not days. They must now think about where their kids will go to school next fall, where they will live and work next winter.

Donated land, trailers

Black Diamond didn't wait for permission or a promise of payment before acting, The company donated the land and trailers, and down the road will seek compensation for the food, power and water it is also providing. 

"It was horrific, we have dealt with the floods in Calgary and we have dealt with other fires but this is major," Stein said. 

Fort McMurray resident Duane Brooks, one of the workers scrambling to get the camp operational, didn't expect to be working this hard this week, fire or no fire. 

"I just retired and my first day of retirement was getting to watch my community burn — so it is a bit of an emotional time," he said, wearing a white hard hat and his father's worn blue overalls. 

Brooks arrived in Lac La Biche on Thursday. He spent the previous days behind the lines helping to protect the homes of his friends and neighbours.

The mobile homes, which once housed oilsands workers, feature modern kitchens, flat screen TVs and leather couches. (Erin Collins/CBC)

'Phenomenal effort'

Now the retired electrician is using his skills to set up homes for those same people and, despite the trials of the last week, says it isn't fatigue or frustration that he feels most — it's gratitude.

"I just can't thank the people of La Biche enough, this is just a phenomenal effort, a phenomenal amount of giving and it is humbling and it is heartwarming and I just want to say thanks," he said. 

Brooks said he's also happy to see the support for his community rolling in from across Canada, saying it proves Canadians value the contributions his home town has made to the country.

"We have participated hugely in the economy both federally and provincially and at the municipal level, and I think we are seeing some of that support come back across Canada."

Once this camp is done it will provide homes for 100 people, but that number could grow to a thousand if it is expanded.

Displaying typical Albertan optimism and determination, Brooks is sure these people will one day return to Fort McMurray.

"We are going to be fine, we are going to rebuild and we are going to be fine."

Retired electrician Duane Brooks helps to set up trailers for those fleeing the wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta. (Erin Collins/CBC)

About the Author

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.

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