The Lights on Beacon Hill
Inside Fort McMurray as it reopens for business
Alberta Venture, September 2016
After a hail storm destroyed his greenhouse nine years ago, Bradley Friesen cleared away acres of trees beside his business, Dunvegan Gardens, which sits in a bend of the Clearwater River southwest of Fort McMurray. That’s why, today, it’s not burned to ash like almost everything else around him. In all directions, flames have seared the hillsides, leaving trees like serrated black needles puncturing the ground along Draper Road. But the Dunvegan storefront stands. The wildfire that began on May 1 – which earned its name, “The Beast,” after swelling from a 1,250-hectare blaze on the city’s perimeter – spared his house, too, but that was dumb luck: In his backyard, the burn line ends hardly 15 metres from the back door. The flames split a lone John Deere push mower down the middle – signature green and yellow on one side, singed grey on the other.
“On Sunday we had good sales in the greenhouse,” says Friesen, recounting the day the wildfire began, 48 hours before the conflagration broke loose and 80,000 people fled Fort McMurray. “Monday wasn’t bad, either. Tuesday, we had customers still coming down at 2:30 when part of the city was being evacuated.” That was just hours before the inferno blockaded the only road out of Draper and helicopters airlifted residents from their homes. Now, a month later, we drive past the charred frame of a Hyundai and an RV that John March, Friesen’s employee of 10 years, lived in down the road. “It does make you stronger,” Friesen says of the fire, or of calamity in general, perhaps. “But, unfortunately, you see who gets left behind.”
It’s Dunvegan’s third day reopened, not long after government-orchestrated re-entry into Fort McMurray began on June 1. Early in the afternoon, the sun is gleaming and Dunvegan is bustling. Through his truck’s radio, we hear the price of oil just broke $50 for the first time this year. Even out here, a 10-minute drive from downtown, as long-closed doors reopen there’s a buzzing across the city, like an electrical current after flipping a breaker back on. The crowd is a good indication that for every resident waiting to see the ruins of their home, there are many who want to cut their lawns and manicure their gardens. But there’s tension, too. Behind the veneer is a city preoccupied with a looming existential question: How is this Fort McMurray different?
Nearby, neighbourhoods razed by the fire are covered in white silica foam to keep dormant embers from reigniting. Waterways, a suburb just north of Dunvegan, was entirely destroyed, and Beacon Hill, too. Other neighbourhoods suffered varying degrees of damage: Timberlea is pockmarked with stray rubble and almost half of Abasand is gone. Friesen could have fared much worse. But in the shadows of what could be Canada’s costliest natural disaster, no one really emerges unscathed. Since the collapse in oil prices almost 20 months ago, Dunvegan’s 95 employees dwindled to 46, and the fire is compounding the downturn’s excruciating squeeze. “We have about half the normal work lined up,” Friesen says. In May, the month of the evacuation, he lost about $500,000 in revenue, during what should be one of his two busiest months. His bank waived all payments until the end of July and is helping with an overdraft on his line of credit. But Friesen thought his insurance covered him for business interruption; it didn’t. “What’s lost is lost,” he says. Dunvegan was founded in 1953 by his grandfather, and Friesen jokes, “They always say the third generation is the one to put them under.”
Back downtown, in a strip mall off Riedel Street, the east-facing windows afford a view of the boreal forest beyond the river. From here, Funmi Baiyewun, the owner of All Nations Supermarket, could see ashes falling like leaves as the fire ignited the hills on May 3. Her husband was at home with their children, calling her to come home. “I told my employees, ‘Stop – we’ll come back tomorrow to clean up,’ ” she says. Like the customers buying garden ornaments at Dunvegan, she believed it’d be a temporary evacuation from which she’d return the next day. Gregoire and Beacon Hill had been evacuated, but most people figured that’d be the worst of it.
At home with her family, she waited for the gas station lineups to subside. Both her vehicles were out of fuel. At 10 p.m., she looked out the window of her bedroom and saw fire flanking both sides of the street by her home in Timberlea. She hurried her family outside, so afraid they left the house with nothing. When she returned on May 25, she saw the fire had come within 200 metres of their home. All Nations was untouched, too, but Baiyewun would spend the next few weeks cleaning its walls, changing the ceiling tiles and meeting with insurance adjusters. Alberta Health Services required everyone returning to dump all uncanned food and open liquor, too. When I visited All Nations, she’d just thrown out $172,000 of inventory.
Baiyewun was planning to open her store in July. In the meantime, she fielded calls from her customers, many of whom came to Fort McMurray from Europe, Asia and Africa and depend on All Nations for food from the old country. In her grocery store, which Baiyewun converted from a saloon before opening in February, the aisles are arranged by continents and countries. On one shelf is fresh callaloo; on another, Moldovan chocolate candies. She has a Canadian delicacy, too: “No one sells fish the way I sell it,” she says, grinning. “The Newfoundlanders are so happy.”
Who will come back to Fort McMurray? she wonders. Already, at the evacuation centre in Lac La Biche, she ran into a customer from the Caribbean who told her not to buy too much Jamaican food. Just two of her five employees have returned. One won’t be coming back at all. Still, her jubilance overpowers the specks of lingering fear. “Everything is coming back to shape,” she says. “I’m happy we can be back in the city and start our normal life again.” Then her phone rings. It’s one of her customers, wondering when she’ll be open.
In 1848, the English philosopher John Stuart Mills wrote, “What has so often excited wonder [is] the great rapidity with which countries recover from a state of devastation; the disappearance, in a short time, of all traces of mischiefs done by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and the ravages of war.” Should his list not include fire?
Gene Ouellette might answer that question with an anecdote. When I spoke with him over the phone, he was staying with his father near a lake south of Lac La Biche, venturing back to Fort McMurray when permitted. Ouellette runs Four Seasons Power Sports, which sold quads, skidoos and street bikes from a storefront in Waterways. He texted me a photo of himself, clad in a yellow hazmat suit and gas mask, standing in front of the rubble that used to be Four Seasons. His house in Abasand is still standing, but when I talked to him on the first day of the re-entry, he wasn’t yet allowed in.
When the price of oil began its historic plunge in 2014, he had to cut wages and couldn’t replace employees who left. “We were trying to get into survival mode,” he says. But he was optimistic; spring this year began strong. Then the fire tore through, leaving his 7,400-square-foot building in its wake. Now, like the prospects of his 15 out-of-work employees, the future of Four Seasons is unclear. It’s a hellish impasse – the lucky ones, whose homes remain intact, have no income to finance their mortgages (in an exorbitant housing market, no less). At the suggestion of recovery programs, like the business-support hotline, Ouellette shrugs. “It’s a service I could probably utilize,” he says, “but at the end of the day I’ve got a total loss. I’m not going to be in any kind of retail shape for over a year.”
Ouellette’s was one of the 2,400 structures lost to the blaze – about 10 per cent of the city. The fire also caused the oil sands to shutter production of 1.2 million barrels per day, losing about $65 million daily. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, called the fire “economically devastating” and warned of the financial impact spreading to the province’s, then the country’s, GDP. The Conference Board of Canada claimed the fire would knock one percentage point out of real GDP growth in Alberta, and, according to the Bank of Canada, it helped pull the county’s projected one per cent growth back into negative territory for the second quarter of 2016. Local governments swiftly grasped the scale: At a meeting in Edmonton, Wood Buffalo’s regional council discussed an impact analysis from the business-analytics firm Dun and Bradstreet. It claimed the fire “has the potential to impact 3,650 active businesses, affecting 44,657 employees and $35.5 billion in annual sales.”
Of those businesses, almost 85 per cent have 10 or fewer employees. That puts small business squarely in the line of fire.
Meanwhile, economists looking beyond the immediate after-effects warned of higher insurance rates, taxes and gasoline prices. Standard & Poor’s said it could be the most expensive insurance event in Canadian history and Verisk Insurance Solutions, an American firm expanding into Western Canada, said 88 per cent of the land burned in Fort McMurray remains at high or extreme risk of burning again. (That Verisk is pitching this analysis to Canadian insurers may foreshadow sky-high insurance rates.) DBRA, another ratings agency, predicts claims of between $2 billion and $6 billion.
Insurers and banks, of course, will make tidy profits from the aftermath of the fire. Standard & Poor’s also told insurance companies they could absorb the losses from Canada’s costliest natural disaster and recoup by raising rates. How much will they rise? For some communities in Fort McMurray, they’ll be moderate. But for Beacon Hill, Waterways, Abasand and Timberlea? It could be expensive enough to render new developments – or the rebuilding of homes – prohibitively expensive.
Do cities ever really recover from devastating natural disasters? On the surface, it might seem like a feat accomplished naturally by the sands of time. But after the Calgary floods in 2013, 43 per cent of affected businesses didn’t rebuild. And of those that did, almost a third failed within the next two years. It’s easy enough to rebuild what’s been destroyed. But natural disasters have invisible impacts, too. Everyone in Fort McMurray will be hurt one way or another, by proxy, even those whose homes and businesses were spared. That’s what small business owners fear most – not the fire’s irremediable damage, but that it will set in place slow-churning mechanisms that will deplete Fort McMurray over years or decades. “And what would Fort McMurray look like then?” I asked. But that’s what residents were asking themselves, too.
For Karen Collins, the owner of downtown Italian restaurant Asti Trattoria Italiana, it might look diminished. She launched Asti in March of this year, and it was a rare feel-good growth story. She quickly increased her staff by one-third. But even as she reopens – buffet only, right now – there are growing pains. Her executive chef has asthma, and the air quality in Fort McMurray leaves him breathless, so he can’t return yet. Two of her employees have just come back, others are still to come, and one of them, whose house burned down in the fire, is living with Collins. And while there’ll be a burst of dining activity after the re-entry, since everyone had to throw out their refrigerators, she says that for a while, people in Fort McMurray won’t be spending as much on eating out. She’s worried about losing whatever momentum she had. Still, she says, “We believe in giving back to the community, and the community is giving back to us now.” How long it will last is the concern.
But the anxiety isn’t unique to small businesses. During the first days of the re-entry, Ben Dutton was busy calling his employees who were scattered across the country, staying with their families in Newfoundland, their friends in Edmonton and Calgary or anywhere else between Prince Rupert and St. John’s. Eighteen of his employees lost their homes, he says. The CEO of Casman Group, one of the largest construction companies in Fort McMurray, predicts a several-month surge in business as the rebuilding ensues. He can’t put a dollar value on it, but doesn’t dismiss the Conference Board of Canada’s estimate of a $1.3-billion boost to Alberta’s economy next year. For local companies, that’s a well in the middle of the desert.
But after that? “Construction activity won’t be as strong as it was,” Dutton says. Parse it any way you’d like: The sector has been sluggish since the price of oil tanked, and rebuilding isn’t a long-term strategy. Fort McMurray still has an infrastructure problem, which will see companies like Casman building fewer new projects. “That’s what’s going to change the fabric of Fort McMurray,” he says. “Maintenance activity is going to take precedence. We’re going through that transition right now.” With constrained capital-project budgets on the industrial side, there’s less work in the oil sands, as well. It’s why Casman has opened shop in Okotoks and Victoria, B.C.
There are plenty of out-of-town companies fishing for contracts, too, looking for reprieve from dry markets in their own corners of the province. Maybe they’ll hook a contract or two, Dutton says, but it won’t become a longstanding foothold for them, “because they don’t realize how expensive it is.” Still, it keeps Fort McMurray companies on guard. Many business owners are suspicious of the province’s claim that 80 per cent of contracts for the rebuild were going to local companies. The latent resentment came to the fore in June, at a contractors’ meeting in Fort McMurray where construction-industry workers lambasted insurance companies for choosing a B.C.-headquartered property evaluation company for the demolition phase.
Small business owners are also anxious about thorny administrative issues with the municipality. “[The municipality] seems to not have its head wrapped around attracting good, smaller-scale business – all their money is coming from the big guys,” says Ouellette, of Four Seasons. “There’s no drive for them to figure out how to make small business work in Fort McMurray.” Reeling from the one-two punch of the downturn and the fire, he’s trying to make it work, but it’s difficult even to do paperwork when you can’t go home. He’s looking for an empty bay where he can fill orders and repair vehicles. Will he rebuild? That’s the goal, he says. “But I need the city to be a player in that. Are they going to make me jump through hoops with building permits and oddball requests, like they’ve done for other people? If they don’t get things squared right away, they’re going to be chasing a lot of business out of town.” He says it could be too much trouble for small businesses like his to return; in fact, he knows plenty who won’t.
But Ouellette contradicts his own pessimism. “Fires have a way of renewing you,” he says. “I’m looking forward to what comes out of it. That’s the only thing you can do – look forward.” Born and raised here, he puts stock in Fort McMurray. From a business perspective, this kind of faith is crucial. It’s like the stock market – fear and panic is contagious; it can snowball in a race to the bottom. But confidence can buoy it through hardship. Through collective faith, as fickle a concept as that is, maybe the city’s small businesses can hold strong.
Disasters in Alberta heretofore left business out of the negotiations. But after the 2013 floods, that began to change. Economic Developers Alberta began its economic disaster recovery project in Calgary that year, helping businesses through the logistical knots that a disaster invariably ties. In Fort McMurray, it’s been advocating for businesses and recommending ideas to the municipality, like the business-support hotline. “When a disaster happens, everyone comes out and means well,” says Leann Hackman-Carty, CEO of EDA. “But no one’s in charge.” Economic development groups, she says, are the logical choice to lead the recovery. She says business usually doesn’t get a seat at the table until months down the road, which compounds the problem. Lots of groups claim to speak for business, but the only ones that can legitimately do so are the very business groups funded by members rather than taxpayers. And they can be held to a high standard: “Economic development groups live and die on what happens,” she says.
Decisions about who will and won’t rebuild in Fort McMurray often come down to issues beyond EDA’s mandate. But Hackman-Carty knows programs like the economic disaster recovery project could be the difference between statistics like Calgary’s or statistics like Slave Lake’s, where 95 per cent of the city was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2011. “This community is very motivated to get back to where it was, but it’s anybody’s guess,” she says. “That’s why we want to get to [businesses] sooner rather than later, because the longer someone hangs out on a limb wondering, the more likely it is they’ll make a different decision. It just depends on how long they can hang on with no revenue.”
And how long can they hold on? In Beacon Hill, floodlights beam down onto the ruins of the neighbourhood every night to keep away scavengers and voyeurs. There are cauterized skeletons of buses, trucks, campers and bicycles, and desultory lots where homes once stood, stark and backlit against the night sky. It reminds me of a quote from the novelist E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” he once told The Paris Review. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” For now, Fort McMurray stares at what’s in front of it, hoping it’s enough to write a new chapter.
On the easternmost reaches of Fort McMurray, across from Dickinsfield, I meet a pastor named Kunle Oladebo in a mostly barren 100-acre plot called Abraham’s Land. He invited me here to glimpse the city’s future. The tract is named after the biblical nomad – sacred to Christians and Muslims alike – who was called by God to a land he’d make his own. As congregations in Fort McMurray outgrew their churches, the municipality offered them a package deal: a plot big enough that Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Hindus, sharing in the expense, could build their places of worship.
Oladebo, who works in the oil patch, too, emigrated from Nigeria almost 16 years ago and founded Daystar Chapel a decade ago with just a few families. Today, his Pentecostal church has parishioners from Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana and Cameroon. Like in Dunvegan Gardens, fire has razed the trees to all sides of us. But Oladebo hopes to open Daystar’s new chapel on June 1, 2017, exactly one year from the first day of the re-entry. I ask what his favourite proverb is. He gives me two prescient answers in one: Haggai 2:9, “The glory of the latter house shall surpass the former,” as he says it, and Proverbs 24:10, “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.”
The name of this site has taken on a new significance since The Beast. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham was cast into an inferno by Nimrod, who conjectured that if Abraham had sufficient faith he’d be protected from the fire. The people and businesses of Fort McMurray have confidence in their city – the question of whether or not Fort McMurray can rebuild should be answered with another question: How was it ever able to build in the first place?
There was a time when the oil sands was considered an easy way to lose money, when it took a certain faith to live here. It still does. Plenty of oil sands executives, who’d become legends in the history of Canadian energy, arrived to this hardscrabble outpost and thought, “Are you sure this is the place?” And thousands of working-class men, women and families, who came here for purposes as varied as their backgrounds, thought the same as they started businesses, raised children and, above all, worked. Many of them just wanted a place where they could raise a family. And whether they stayed mattered less than the fact that they’d arrived.
Abraham, too, was preoccupied with questions of land and lineage. And he emerged from the fire.
Reprinted with permission from Alberta Venture.