As Fort McMurray marked the sombre anniversary of the wildfires that swept through town a year ago, with no direct loss of life but 1,500 homes lost, a block party last week quickly turned into a farewell for two or three families that had decided not to rebuild—and a reckoning of all the former neighbours who simply never returned.
When a couple of dozen residents and two dogs gathered in Fort Mac’s hard-hit Beacon Hill neighbourhood Wednesday evening, “they had beer, rye whisky, and soft drinks. What they didn’t have was much of a block,” the New York Times reports. “There are now just two livable houses on the street, where once there were 55. About a dozen more are being rebuilt. But where the rest once stood, there are only muddy lots, vacant except for the capped utility pipes jutting from the ground.”
Before the fire, residents and realtors agree, Beacon Hill was the most desirable location in town.
The short-term damage to the town came from the wildfires. The long-term impact of crashing oil prices is still being felt, along with a steep drop in property values due to plummeting demand for homes.
“Across the city, only 1% of the buildings that were destroyed last year have been rebuilt and reoccupied,” the Times notes. “The city has issued building permits for fewer than half of the rest,” though that’s partly due to the glacial pace at which some insurance claims are being settled.
Fort Mac Mayor Melissa Blake is sanguine about the reality that it may take years for the city to fully repopulate.
“We know the events of last year weigh heavily on a lot of people,” she told the Times’ Ian Austen. “If part of their recovery requires they leave the community, that’s just a reality we have to face.”