Worry in Scorched Fort McMurray: How Many Will Walk Away?


The Beaverglen partygoers — about two dozen people and two dogs — took a ceremonial walk along the crescent-shaped street, catching up with neighbors, snapping photos and puzzling over exactly where some of the missing houses once stood. It quickly became apparent that the party was both a reunion and something of a farewell: Two residents said they did not intend to rebuild, and a third said he was leaning that way.

Across the city, only 1 percent of the buildings that were destroyed last year have been rebuilt and reoccupied. The city has issued building permits for fewer than half of the rest. Those figures will rise as more property owners reach settlements with their insurers. But Melissa Blake, the mayor of the regional municipality that includes Fort McMurray, acknowledged that the city might not fully repopulate for years.

“We know the events of last year weigh heavily on a lot of people,” Ms. Blake said from her office, where she has a panoramic view of the black scar the fire left on the landscape. “If part of their recovery requires they leave the community, that’s just a reality we have to face.”

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A wildfire so hot it melted the aluminum engines in parked cars laid waste to the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Fort McMurray. The debris has been cleared away, but rebuilding work has begun on only a few of the destroyed houses.

Credit
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Residents and real estate agents agree that before the fire, Beacon Hill was probably the most desirable part of the city. The attraction was not so much the houses — mostly modest in size and style and built in the 1970s — but the surroundings. Unlike newer parts of town, Beacon Hill homes had spacious lots with mature trees, and the street traffic was minimal because there was only one access road into the area.

(That advantage turned into a big problem during the evacuation, when traffic bottlenecked so badly that some residents risked going off-road down a steep hillside to reach the main highway. The ruts from their tires are still visible in the grass.)

Beacon Hill “was the older, family-feeling neighborhood,” said Stephen Nash, a mechanic who lived on Beaverglen and had emergency hip-replacement surgery just a few days before the fire. “You knew everybody on the street,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of renters.”

Video

Revisiting Fort McMurray, Alberta, One Year After the Devastating Fire

Ian Austen, a reporter for The New York Times, revisits Fort McMurray, Alberta, one year after a raging forest fire swept through the city and forced the entire population to evacuate. He surveys how much has changed for the once-torched land and its residents.


Publish Date May 3, 2017.


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Fort McMurray was long known as a place for Canadians from all over to go for a while, make a quick buck in the oil sands projects and move on again. But the people who are leaving Beaverglen Close now were well rooted.

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Evacuees from the wildfire took refuge at the Bold Center in Lac la Biche last year.

Credit
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Dawna Backhouse watched her house being built for her parents 42 years ago. She and her husband, Scott, later bought it and raised two children of their own there. But with Scott now only five or six years from retirement, the couple decided not to rebuild. Instead, they intend to take their insurance payout, rent in another part of town for a year and then move south, possibly to a house they own in Calgary.

“It’s bittersweet; we love this neighborhood,” said Ms. Backhouse, a preschool teacher. “I’ve known some of these neighbors since I was, like, this tall. There were a lot of pros and cons.”

Shelley Kellington and her husband, who lived across the street from Ms. Backhouse, are joining the exodus, too, even though Ms. Kellington’s daughter Melissa and her husband are rebuilding down the street.

“I just don’t have it in me to build,” said Ms. Kellington, who was teaching at the neighborhood primary school when the fire struck, and helped evacuate its students. The school has not reopened, and she and her husband have decided to retire and live in a new motor home bought with part of their insurance settlement. “We will be of no fixed address,” she said. “Who ever would have thought?”

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Construction underway in the Parsons Creek neighborhood of Fort McMurray.

Credit
Noel West for The New York Times

So far, about 28,000 insurance claims have been filed from the fire in Fort McMurray, according to Bill Adams of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, an industry association. A majority have been settled, he said, and those still outstanding are likely to involve houses that were destroyed rather than just damaged.

Mr. Adams said there were no figures yet on how many people were taking the money and walking away rather than rebuilding. If they are doing that, he said, there is a good chance they were underinsured and have discovered that their policies would not pay enough to cover replacement costs.

Settlements vary and are negotiated case by case. But several property owners said theirs were about 20 percent less than replacement cost.

Quinn Lotsberg, a high school vice principal who moved to Fort McMurray 12 years ago, reckons that it would cost him more to rebuild on Beaverglen now than the house would be worth when finished. For that and other reasons, he is considering taking the cash, selling the land for whatever it will fetch and moving on.

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Burned trees line the Parsons Creek neighborhood of Fort McMurray.

Credit
Noel West for The New York Times

“I can’t exactly tell you what will be the deciding factor,” he said as he walked near his lot, which for now is just fenced in.

Since the fire, Fort McMurray has gone from having hardly any residential lots for sale to having a glut, and prices have plunged, according to Andrew Weir, a local real estate broker. At the top of the market before the oil slump, he said, it might take 400,000 Canadian dollars to secure one of the few building lots that came available, but today they can be had easily for less than half that — a sign of how many homeowners are walking away.

The three neighborhoods hit hardest by the fire, in the city’s south end, are still largely deserted, and local businesses are feeling the loss of those customers. At A & J’s Fashions, a clothing store in the smaller of the city’s two malls, sales are only about half what they were before the fire.

“We just have to struggle through another year and see if it gets better,” said Joycelyn B. Reece-Reid, the owner, who put her loss to smoke damage at about 500,000 Canadian dollars, only partly covered by insurance. “The town isn’t the same at the moment,” she said, “but eventually it will get there.”

Life remains badly unsettled for many Fort McMurray residents.

Video

A Survivor of the 2016 Alberta Fire: ‘I Lost My Everyday Life’

Bobby-Jean Loevenmark, who lost her home in the massive 2016 fire that swept through Fort McMurray, Alberta, shares her struggles of rebuilding her life. She tells The Times’s Ian Austen how much she lost and how hard it will be to return to normalcy.


Publish Date May 3, 2017.


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“The kids did not do well coming back,” said Bobby-Jean Loevenmark, whose house was just around the corner from Beaverglen Close. She and her husband are rebuilding, but the new house may not be finished until December. In the meantime, the couple and the three youngest of their five children stayed with friends in Saskatchewan and then a relative in Ontario last summer, and then moved into a rented house across town when school started in September.

“They’re not happy, period, because they’re not home,” she said of her children as she stood in front of her lot in Beacon Hill. “All their friends had lived over here, or up over here, and now they’re all dispersed all over Fort McMurray.” Some had even moved away to former homes in other provinces, she said, a loss her children felt acutely: “Their everyday life got ripped away from them.”

After walking the length of Beaverglen Close on Wednesday evening, the partygoers said their goodbyes, strapped their children into car seats and loaded the dogs in the back. Once more, they were evacuating their neighborhood — consigning it not to the flames this time, but to the night watchmen at the construction sites. Some of them may never return.

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