When the fires that have ravaged northern Alberta this week eventually subside, the task of rebuilding Fort McMurray will begin. It promises to be a long, complicated process that will raise questions about the kind of community residents and civic leaders want to see emerge from the ashes.
It's a process that many other communities have faced, from southern Alberta after the floods of 2013, to Slave Lake after the fire of 2011. Fort McMurray is different, though, because of its unique connection to Canada's oil sands, the powerful resource whose role in this country's economic future tends to divide people across the political spectrum. How the city rebuilds – whether it plans to grow larger or become denser or greener – could become as politically contested as the future of its primary industry.
The first task, according to Tyler Warman, the Mayor of Slave Lake, is to focus on basic infrastructure. Many people will want to return quickly, but a lot needs to be done to make it possible.
"You've got to get power on, then you've got to fix roads and fix sidewalks. There's a lot of work to do on the bricks and mortar," Mr. Warman said.
When his town lost a quarter to a third of its homes, they brought in hundreds of units of temporary housing so people could return and get back to work. But he found the emotional fallout for many people was considerable. He said the mayor and council in Fort McMurray should prepare themselves for a marathon, not a sprint. It could be years before things return to normal. In the meantime, they will be tested.
"Our [fire] happened at the same time of year, and it wasn't until Christmastime that you felt like, 'Okay, I can catch my breath here.' It took a good year to two years to feel we were on the right track, and even here at year five, I'd say we're 90 per cent of the way there but not 100 per cent," Mr. Warman said. "We really stressed that just because the fire is out does not mean the emergency is over."
Sandeep Agrawal, director of the urban and regional planning program at the University of Alberta, said officials will have to take a careful look at how it was possible for the fire to cause such extensive damage to a major city, and examine ways of ensuring it won't happen again. He describes it as "risk-based planning," and it could involve imposing restrictions on development near forested areas, such as the use of covenants with property owners to mitigate the threat of fires.
"They need to think about urban planning and the ways they can minimize the impact of extreme events such as this," Prof. Agrawal said. "One of the main objectives should be to reduce threats associated with the unintended risks of development."
About 90,000 people have fled Fort McMurray, and the extent of the damage is still not fully known. Early estimates have placed the insurance costs as high as $9-billion, and it will surely be among Canada's largest and costliest natural disasters.
In recent years, the community has faced a degree of economic hardship as the drop in the price of oil has led to higher levels of unemployment and falling property values, but Prof. Agrawal said it's unlikely the community would consider downsizing as it rebuilds.
Oil has always been a boom-and-bust kind of business, he said, and most will anticipate the next boom is not far off. He said he expects those who have been forced out will want to return and rebuild, although no one can know for certain until the scale of the destruction can be assessed.
Leith Deacon, a professor of urban planning at the University of Alberta who has studied Fort McMurray and other resource-based communities, said the city, like others connected to resource industries, is shaped by its booms. You can see it in the architecture. The reconstruction will potentially allow the city to address some of the shortcomings that arose from its rapid growth.
"You have entire suburbs that have gone up very fast," he said. "You had inconceivable numbers of people moving into this city and nowhere for them to live, so you had poor-quality buildings going up."
He doubts, though, that the young, relatively prosperous families who have lived in a fairly typical suburban setting will now opt for a denser urban plan or a city heavily focused on transit.
Theresa Wells, who has lived in Fort McMurray for 15 years and works as the communication director for the local recreation centre, said there will be some impetus to rethink Fort McMurray.
"We actually have an opportunity to take a step back and look at different areas, different neighbourhoods, a different design for the city and really figure out how we're going to do this," Ms. Wells said. "We can look at developing a more sustainable community, more environmentally friendly."
She mentioned the need for more access roads in parts of the community, as was evident in the images of jammed escape routes during the evacuation, as well as a ring road to keep heavy vehicles out of the centre of town, and expanded residential lots.
"We don't have to rebuild Fort McMurray the way it was. We can rebuild Fort McMurray the way we want to see it in future," she said.