Wednesday, May 3 marked the anniversary of the Fort McMurray wildfire, an event that irrevocably changed the lives of thousands of the city’s residents.
But with a calendar year behind them, many of those residents find themselves rebuilding their lives from the ground-up.
Jon McComb spoke to former Fort McMurray radio host and current resident Chris Byrne about his first-hand take on those rebuilding efforts.
Byrne says there are still a lot of questions surrounding the first days of the fire.
Though 2011’s Slave Lake wildfire gave the community a template for how to deal with the aftermath, many Fort McMurray residents were uncertain about where to start.
In his neighbourhood alone, Byrne says 15 houses burnt down.
Though it was a long road getting there, all 15 of those houses are in the process of being restored.
Byrne says the fact that they’re finally in the restoration stage is a good sign.
“Everything has been cleaned up, so now it really is starting the rebuilding in Fort McMurray.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Fort McMurray mayor Melissa Blake say nearly 80 per cent of residents have returned to the city.
However, Byrne says the 20 per cent of people who have departed have left a large hole in the community.
“It still feels weird out there.”
He says that feeling is indicative of a shift in how people are living their lives.
Byrne says, for example, multiple grocery stores remain closed as they don’t have enough employees to staff them.
“It really shifted, not necessarily the demographics, but how people are living and working in Fort McMurray.”
Despite people adapting to those changes, however, the question remains whether they can keep that momentum going when it comes to rebuilding efforts.
The wildfire came while Fort McMurray was already going through a rough patch, with oil prices sinking to almost half their previous amount.
And with oil prices currently hovering around $45 a barrel, many have questioned whether those prices can support a full rebuild.
Byrne recognizes that demand for oil is integral to Fort McMurray’s survival, going as far as to say the city “lives and dies by the price of oil.”
Despite that, he says there’s still a sense of optimism from residents.
“The outlook for a lot of people is that we’re not going to get back to the $100, $120 a barrel days, but if we can live with $50 a barrel… we can maintain with what we have.”
With files from Tristan Martin-Woodhouse