The wildfires ripping through Fort McMurray this week are tearing down homes, destroying businesses, and scattering the city's residents across Alberta. For the evacuees, many of whom still do not know the fate of their property more than 30 hours after the fires breached city limits, the shock of this sudden loss is so fresh as to be almost unthinkable.
But for the almost 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, a city that became the poster child for Alberta's economic woes as the price of oil plummeted, it is a loss that comes in a year full of them: lost jobs, lost property values, lost opportunities.
Like many from his hometown, Harvey Sykes was pondering his future on Wednesday morning. Hours earlier, the only home he has ever known burned down.
Mr. Sykes' house was the last trapper's cabin in the Waterways neighbourhood. He was born in the house in 1952, and had lived there for 64 years. "And now I'm sure that's gone. I drove by there this morning. I lost everything," he said. "All I had a chance to take was a change of clothes and that was it."
More than 90 per cent of Mr. Sykes' neighbourhood was destroyed on Tuesday.
Albertans are no strangers to disaster. Flames ripped through the town of Slave Lake in 2011, destroying 433 buildings – about one-third of the community. In 2013, large swaths of southern Alberta disappeared under flood waters, including downtown Calgary. That disaster caused an estimated $5-billion in damages.
Now, after one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history, Fort McMurray's residents remain undaunted. The same men and women who built some of the largest industrial projects in the country say they are convinced their town will rebuild quickly.
"I really don't know what else to say," said Mr. Sykes, a local Métis elder. "Fort McMurray will rebuild. We're stubborn."
The government of Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency on Wednesday. More than 1,600 structures were destroyed in Fort McMurray on Tuesday alone. While some neighbourhoods escaped largely unscathed, others were turned almost completely to ash.
Mayor Melissa Blake drew parallels to Slave Lake and how that community rebuilt after wildfires.
"We will hope to follow in the shadow of Slave Lake in our perseverance and resolve," Ms. Blake said on Wednesday. "And as we look to the future, this is still a place of incredible strength, resiliency and vibrancy."
Ian MacDonald was sunbathing and drinking a beer on the shores of Gregoire Lake on Wednesday afternoon. An energy worker who commutes to Fort McMurray from Newfoundland and Labrador, he said he worries about the future of the oil sands city.
"Fort Mac is in real trouble," he said, watching as tall plumes of white smoke rose over the city, 30 kilometres to the north across the lake.
"This is not what this city needed. It makes you think that with the economy the way it is, with people losing their jobs, some fellows might just take the insurance money on their homes and run."
Mr. MacDonald has been working in the city for more than three years, currently for Suncor. On Tuesday night, he defied a mandatory evacuation order and stayed in his hotel room as the city burnt around him. He says he shares that trait with many others: "We're stubborn."
Steeve Cortes is from Siquijor, an island in the Philippines. He came to Fort McMurray eight years ago, and lost one of his two jobs in January because of the economic downturn.
On Wednesday, Mr. Cortes appeared relaxed despite the fire and financial hit. As a result of the downturn, he and his wife, Maryann, will have to reduce the amount of money they send to their parents.
"I'm a surfer," he said. "I was born an islander. I'm an islander. The way I see it, it is like a wave – you can't stop it, but you can surf it out."
Mr. Cortes, 36, works full-time at Hertz as a technician doing jobs like fixing tires. He no longer gets overtime hours there because business has slowed. A double financial hit after losing his part-time job.
The Cortes live in a basement suite and were evacuated around 8 p.m on Tuesday. He grabbed his credit and debit cards, phone, and a knapsack with water in it. "That was it."
He ended up in Anzac, a hamlet south of Fort McMurray where thousands of the city's residents have stopped for help as they fled. "Life is more important than property," he said as small waves washed up on a tiny strip of sand at a roadside rest stop just outside town.
For now, Mr. Cortes has only his black-and-white flip flops, steel-toed boots he had at work, the black sweats he is wearing, a sweater, and the black Hertz t-shirt on his back. He is drinking a Red Bull and wearing an orange wristband identifying him as an evacuee.
"Ride it out," he said. "You can't stop the wave."
With a report from the Canadian Press