Canadian town, already staggering from oil bust, hit by wildfires

Wed May 4, 2016 5:25pm EDT
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By Rod Nickel

EDMONTON, Alberta May 4 (Reuters) - Fort McMurray, the Canadian oil town engulfed by wildfires, was already crippled by a collapse in crude prices before flames raced into the once-booming city, burning hundreds of homes to the ground and chasing residents into bush camps for safety.

Dubbed Fort McMoney when its oilsands industry was flourishing and residents were among the wealthiest in Canada, Fort McMurray had been hemorrhaging workers and wealth for 18 months before fires forced the evacuation of the entire city's 88,000 residents.

"Fort McMurray was really the ground zero of all that was happening related to oil and gas," said Sandeep Agrawal, urban studies and regional planning professor at the University of Alberta. "When this bust happened, it was catastrophic in many ways."

Surrounded by thick boreal forest and vast oil sands deposits, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major city, Fort McMurray was deeply reliant on a single commodity.

Its population ballooned to over 120,000 in 2015, sparking housing shortages and skyrocketing prices, before a 70 percent drop in oil prices last year slammed the door on growth, prompting the exodus of almost one-third of its inhabitants.

"Stores were closing, small businesses were closing. A year or two ago you could not get a seat in the restaurants, but the buying power was not there any more," said Ria Dickason, a South African immigrant who has lived in Fort McMurray for 14 years and fled the fires on Tuesday.

"Everyone was concerned about it, because it impacted every single person. It doesn't matter what type of work you do because lots and lots and lots of people lost their jobs."

Real estate websites are littered with listings for sprawling Fort McMurray homes with asking prices approaching C$1 million - double Canada's average home price - in neighborhoods that are now charred and smoldering amid Alberta's largest-ever evacuation for a fire.   Continued...