Fort McMurray's Beacon Hill neighbourhood was among those areas hardest hit by the May wildfires. Photo: Reuters/Jason Franson

Fort McMurray's construction community prepares for daunting task of rebuilding

How do you put a number on a tragedy of this historic level? Try $3.58 billion. That’s the estimate of the insured property damage in Fort McMurray due to the wildfires that forced the mass evacuation of over 80,000 people from the city on May 3.

The estimate was released by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) on July 7. The damage done by the Beast, as the wildfire has been dubbed, has been “by far the costliest insured natural disaster in Canadian history.... This is more than twice the amount of the previous costliest natural disaster on record—the 2013 southern Alberta flood, which cost $1.7 billion in insurance claims,” according to the IBC’s report.

Ravaging nearly 600,000 hectares of forest, an area bigger than Prince Edward Island, the fire destroyed about 2,400 homes and buildings as it moved east toward the Saskatchewan border. Re-entry only began on June 1 and the cleanup process will take months as crews clear away debris and contaminants. Rebuilding is not a task being taken lightly by the local construction industry.

Suspended projects

The Fort McMurray Construction Association (FMCA) has been helping lead these efforts by supporting construction companies and personnel, including during the challenging evacuation period in May. Within a day of leaving the city, the FMCA had set up a remote office in Edmonton. Offers of support from the Edmonton and Grande Prairie construction associations began pouring in immediately.

According to Lana Maloney, the FMCA’s executive director, much has already been done to support the association’s 160 member companies during this difficult time. The organization’s list of accomplishments during the evacuation is lengthy. The FMCA:

  • Worked closely with the Alberta Public Works Association by providing the FMCA’s membership list.
  • Assisted the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) with developing an Offers of Resources database. 
  • Provided members with updated wildfire information.
  • Advocated to the province on the need for government-backed bridge financing to assist with cash-flow challenges.
  • Established an employment opportunities section on its website.
  • Met with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and various MLAs from all parties.
  • Worked with Wood Buffalo Economic Development to set up the Back to Business Resource Centre.

The devastation from the fire has also meant many construction projects in the area have been delayed or even suspended.

“Almost all of the projects that were currently out for tender prior to the evacuation were temporarily suspended,” Maloney says. “Of course, many of the active jobs were also suspended.”

Indeed, the RMWB council has now suspended 88 out of the 204 capital projects scheduled for the municipality this 1Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada

Back to business

Getting these projects back on track and starting the massive rebuild effort will take a great deal of cooperation between all levels of government, not just the local municipality. The association is getting ready to send a letter to local MP David Yurdiga to ask for his assistance in establishing federally backed no-interest loans to support local businesses struggling with cash-flow issues related to both the wildfire and the economic downturn.

Many smaller and medium-sized businesses in particular will likely need a wide range of supports to get back on their feet. Led by Wood Buffalo Economic Development, the Back to Business Resource Centre will offer a one-stop shop for resources from all levels of government, in addition to providing office supplies and meeting spaces and offering access to insurance and business advisers to help get companies operational again.

The FMCA is one of the partners involved in the centre, which also includes the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, Community Futures Wood Buffalo, the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association and the Insurance Bureau of Canada. Working with the other stakeholders, the FMCA is hoping to host a “reverse trade show” that will showcase local businesses.

“We will also continue to monitor the decisions being made by all levels of government that may further impact the local business community,” Maloney adds.

Community comeback

For Ben Dutton of the Casman Group of Companies, one of the area’s largest construction firms, the experience of watching the wildfire from afar was surreal. Dutton, the president and chief executive officer of the company, moved to Edmonton from Fort McMurray last year.

“I had spoken to one of my senior administration leaders, who said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ and then everything started very quickly,” he recalls.

“It was hard to watch. It was a nightmare,” Dutton continues. “Our company didn’t lose any buildings, but 18 employees lost their residences. We immediately put the strength of the organization behind them.”

Not new to fire emergencies, Casman dealt with an incident of their own in 2012 when a millwork shop caught fire causing major smoke damage. “This is why we had a disaster recovery plan in place,” Dutton says. “We never lost communications with our team, and our servers were safe.”

Since reopening its offices on June 13, Casman has been front and centre with restoration efforts in Fort McMurray. Over 200 workers are on the ground assisting with HVAC, smoke neutralizing and other tasks.

The nature of its business means the company should not see a loss of revenue due to the fire—just delays, Dutton says. The group will be busy with 10 major projects, including a July start on the Anzac Fire Hall and wrapping up the Jubilee Plaza in the heart of downtown Fort McMurray.

“Fort McMurray is our home. There is an emotional component involved,” Dutton says. “We are here for the community. It is absolutely essential—the community will come back.”info 3Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada

The trades are back in town

Faiza Mann echoes those sentiments. She has lived in Fort McMurray for over a decade and co-founded Mann Builders with her husband in 2011. Since launching, the construction company has worked on over 60 houses, many custom built, although the number of units built in recent years has dropped due to the economic slowdown.

Like other residents of the city, Mann has nothing but praise for the hard work of the first responders in saving so many homes, key infrastructure and the community. (Over 85 per cent of the structures in the city escaped damage, and its major infrastructure came through largely unscathed.) She stayed in Calgary during the evacuation, but her thoughts remained close to home.

“During the initial stages of evacuation, we contacted our clients and trades to ensure that their families were safely evacuated,” Mann recalls. “We offered our assistance by all means.”

Mann Builders was fortunate to not lose any property in the Parsons Creek area, where it is active in the new Heritage master-planned community development. However, the company did lose a rental unit in the municipality, and the fire has delayed the completion of all of its homes currently under construction. But projects are already getting back on track as residents return to the city.

“Our sub-contractors and trades are all local,” Mann says. “And most of our trades are already back in town and routine construction activities have resumed.”

As a member of the FMCA, Mann appreciates how the association has been advocating the importance of using local contractors to rebuild the city. These are difficult times for those who have lost their homes, and she is eager to begin working with clients to ensure new houses are finished in a smooth and timely manner. Her company will be coordinating closely with the RMWB, insurance providers and other local businesses in the coming months as they plan rebuild activities.

“In the past, local businesses have worked together during difficult times,” she says. “We believe local businesses have the skills and resources to rebuild Fort McMurray, and we expect all will work together to achieve this goal. We are all committed to rebuilding Fort McMurray together.”

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