The knock came just after midnight, nearly four years ago, for Terri Conner and her husband. At their door was a firefighter with an evacuation order, giving them 15 minutes to leave the condo they'd owned and lived in for years.
"You don't know what to think. Like, okay, pack a couple things," she said. But they were never allowed to move back into their unit, one of 168 in the Fort McMurray complex that were deemed unstable, uninhabitable and irreparable despite being less than a decade old.
It came as a surprise to Ms. Conner, who knew about problems in other buildings in the complex but hadn't had any in her unit. "It was an emotional roller-coaster," she said.
The evacuation of seven condo buildings along Penhorwood Street in 2011 left roughly 300 people homeless in a community where housing was already at a premium. The buildings went up beginning in the early-to-mid 2000s as Fort McMurray boomed, and were deemed unsafe before their sudden nighttime evacuation in 2011. A legal fight has followed, as many owners – Ms. Conner among them – continue to make mortgage payments on uninhabitable units.
The latest step in the saga came Thursday with the start of demolition, expected to cost up to $3-million and wrap up next month.
"There's two feelings – first of all, one of immense relief that finally this is happening. They have been sitting there as a reminder of all the pain and agony these people have suffered over the last four years" since evacuation, said Christine Burton, president of the Penhorwood Condo Association. "The other [feeling] is sadness, as people are finally losing their homes, in a very real and physical sense."
After the evacuation, owners and tenants were eventually allowed back in to remove more of their belongings, but repairs were said to be too costly, Ms. Burton said. The condo owners are suing more than two dozen defendants in the ordeal, she said. That suit is unresolved, though she said tentative settlements have been reached with four defendants, including two "major" ones, and will be presented in court later this month. Money could then start flowing back to condo owners.
Alberta has since brought in new condo rules, including a New Home Buyer Protection Act last year that added, among other things, warranty protection on new condo construction. But the act does not apply retroactively.
Ms. Burton said Fort McMurray's boom "may have" contributed to the buildings' poor quality and eventual evacuation. "Hard to say, hard to prove, except that there was a lot of pressure on everybody to get housing up, right? It was very tense, and housing was short, and rents were high," she said. "… It was an exercise in a system failing across the board."
On Thursday, people stopped to watch the demolition begin.
Since her 2011 evacuation, Ms. Conner – who stayed in Fort McMurray and is now paying two mortgages – has tried to avoid driving past the condos. Demolition, she says, is bittersweet.
"It's moving in the right direction, but at the same time, at the end of the month we've still go to pay our mortgage," she said.