Fort McMurray, a Canadian Oil Boom Town, Is Left in Ashes

Until environmentalists challenged the Keystone XL oil pipeline this decade, the city and the Alberta oil sands reserve were little known outside of Canada and the world’s oil companies. But attempts to convert its deposits of tarlike bitumen into fuel go back decades, and Fort McMurray’s fortunes have risen and fallen with them.

Its first modern boom was in the 1970s, when the government decided to place its bets on the costly-to-produce oil sands and billions of dollars flowed into the area. That ended with a thud as oil prices sank in the 1980s, and the sands suddenly seemed like a dying curiosity.

The latest, and much bigger, boom was unleashed in the last 15 years as oil prices soared, along with China’s demand for crude, and as technology to extract oil from the sands improved.

Fort McMurray, which got its start as a fur trading post in the 1800s, was never as pretty as the forest that surround it; the downtown, which has escaped the wildfire so far, is an architectural time capsule of the 1970s, filled with low-rise buildings thrown up in a hurry. And even at its best, the city has a kind-of “town and gown” feel, with most of the jobs with big oil companies becoming what locals called “fly in, fly out.”

Those employees came from across Canada and were immediately bused by their employers to camps closer to the remote oil sands projects, where they worked two-week shifts before returning home.

Still, with so many jobs in welding and construction and transportation, the population ballooned to more than 90,000 at its peak from 38,000 in 2000. Land that cost 27,000 Canadian dollars an acre at the turn of the millennium had reached 1 million Canadian dollars (about $775,000), while new housing developments ate ever deeper into the surrounding woods of black spruce.

“Doctors and lawyers don’t make the money we make,” said Chad Abbott, 50, a scaffolding company supervisor.

Mr. Abbott moved to Fort McMurray in 1998 with his family and worked at an oil sands plant site, earning about 250,000 Canadian dollars a year. He was part of a tightknit community in the city composed largely of oil services employees, trades workers and engineers, many of whom have lost all they own.

Initially during the most recent boom, Fort McMurray had welcomed keeping much of the fast-growing work force in the remote work camps. But those workers’ lack of connection to Fort McMurray — as well as the lack of their dollars being spent there — eventually stirred resentment.


Dorian McCready, who was dropping off supplies to a command post, searched for a friend’s home in an evacuated neighborhood of Fort McMurray on Saturday to try to rescue some sentimental items for the friend.

Ian Willms for The New York Times

“In the early days, they didn’t want the camp workers in town because they would bring with them all you would imagine in the Wild West: come into town, shoot up the town and head back out,” said Stephen Ross, the president of Devonian Properties, which began buying local land in 2000.

The city could not hold all of the seediness at bay; for a time a raft of strip clubs did good business. But over the years, Fort McMurray smoothed its rougher edges. Its neighborhoods filled with a melange of accents and nationalities, from Newfoundlanders to Filipinos employed at hotels and gas stations and heavy-equipment movers from Fiji.

Before the fire, the number of strip clubs had dwindled to just one, Showgirls, near the end of the town’s main drag, Franklin Avenue. Several blocks away, the green-domed Markaz ul Islam mosque had become too small for Friday prayers, forcing the overflow crowds to use the gymnasium of a nearby Catholic school.

Samya Hassan, 51, a hijab-wearing refugee from Yemen, came to Canada in 1990 and settled in Fort McMurray four years ago with her family. They prospered. Her husband got a job as a truck driver, she as a cashier — enough to put their three children through school.

That all ended Tuesday when she and her family fled. Fire roared next to the highway as they crept along in bumper-to-bumper traffic; she used her headscarf to breathe through the heavy black smoke that blotted out the sun.

Ms. Hassan was able to grab her passport, but no family photos. “I’ll have to start life over again like 25 years ago,” she said.


A convoy of evacuees headed south from Fort McMurray on Saturday.

Ian Willms for The New York Times

For countless displaced residents, it is the lost things money cannot replace that will haunt them. Ariana Caissie, 22, took her two cats, but said her late father’s recipe cards were lost when her mother had no time to save them. “They’re just memories now,” she said.

Residents, including local politicians, are committed to rebuilding, but questions remain about what Fort McMurray will be. “Depending on what we’re able to dream up — and actually do and deliver — it’s a whole new world,” Melissa Blake, the mayor, said in an interview.

Adam Rairdon, a former chef, has invested too much in Fort McMurray to walk away. After spending about $20,000 to study industrial radiography, he left Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his wife, Laura, four years ago and found a job in the boom town. About a month before oil prices started to decline, they bought a house and began renovations.

Mr. Rairdon, who took leave from his job to rebuild the house, recalls listening to news of oil prices tumbling on the radio as he tore down walls. Around the same time, Ms. Rairdon became pregnant.

By January 2015, his employer started cutting back. Unlike some co-workers, Mr. Rairdon kept his job but lost about a quarter of his pay, he said outside the hall on a fairground in Edmonton, now a temporary home for him, his wife and their 10-month-old baby.

Mr. Rairdon has seen video confirming that their home is largely destroyed. Soon, he will drive his wife and child to his in-laws’ home in New Brunswick. After that, Mr. Rairdon said, he will buy a secondhand trailer and return to Fort McMurray to help rebuild.

“As soon as they open the gates, I’m going with a shovel and work boots and we’re going to clean up our town,” he said. “There are many that probably can’t, many that can’t afford to and many who are just so brokenhearted that they probably won’t. I can only speak for myself when I say I’m not done.”

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