Her life was already in flux. Valerie Morfitt-Gregan had decided to sell her long-time home in Fort McMurray to move to be closer to her family near Edmonton. It had been a difficult choice – the bungalow held the memories of family dinners and milestones, and the last five years of her late first husband's life.
One week after her realtor listed Ms. Morfitt-Gregan's property for sale, the massive wildfire hit and completely destroyed her house in the neighbourhood of Abasand.
The house was fully paid for following her late husband's career at Syncrude Canada Ltd. and her years as a clerk at Keyano College. Newly separated from her second husband, she is staying with family and waiting to hear from her insurance company. What's key is whether insurance will give her a "decent" payout for her destroyed home if she doesn't rebuild – in which case she has been told she must sell the empty lot herself.
"But if I rebuild, I can't see me staying there," said the 55-year-old from her son's house in Spruce Grove, Alta. "I'll probably sell."
The immediate threat of flames has dissipated, and the move back to Fort McMurray for more than 80,000 residents evacuated in May began in earnest this month. But the upheaval in Fort McMurray will be long-term – especially as it relates to the housing market.
About 10 per cent of buildings, or 2,400 structures, have been destroyed. Many other homes are damaged or need extensive cleaning. Some homeowners are pledging to rebuild, but others – unsettled by the trauma of the evacuation or looking for an exit from an oil economy in the doldrums – want to leave permanently.
There are predictions that the cost of rental accommodation will jump. Workers are streaming in for the rebuilding of the community, and the owners of oil sands work camps and modular structure services are looking to add capacity as activity ramps up.
But when it comes to the longer-term outlook for housing and real estate, there is widespread uncertainty about what is going to happen. Many people have returned to take a look at their house this month but haven't permanently returned to the city. Many major questions remain, including: How much of the fire-ravaged neighbourhoods of Beacon Hill, Waterways and Abasand will be rebuilt? How many empty lots will be left for sale? What will the population of Fort McMurray be a year from now?
"We have people that are back in town that come by and ask: 'What should I do? Should I rebuild? Should I sell? What's my land worth?'" says Lynn Edwards, president of the Fort McMurray Real Estate Board.
"We can't even tell them that, right now, because of all of the uncertainty about 'Is Beacon Hill, Waterways and Abasand going to basically reopen?' And what their insurance company says."
Most predictions about the future are based on other fire-hit communities that are smaller, such as northern Alberta's Slave Lake (with a population of 7,000). But Fort McMurray is singular for being largely dependent on the fortunes of the oil industry. Oil sands operators are trying to get operations up to normal speed again but it will still take weeks. Because of the oil price drop that began in the summer of 2014, a number of industry jobs have been lost and construction of new oil sands projects slowed dramatically. Construction on new projects is set to wrap up in 2017.
Even before the wildfire hit, Fort McMurray's residential vacancy rate had been about 30 per cent. Housing sales prices had dropped by more than 20 per cent between late 2014 and late 2015, and continued to decline early this year.
Melanie Galea, a Fort McMurray realtor, says she's received questions about whether her clients should boost the price of their houses following the fires because of the reduced amount of housing stock available to buyers. Over the past year, she's had to slash listing prices repeatedly due to a lack of buyers.
So far, Ms. Galea been telling her clients to watch the market before committing to hefty increases. "Sellers might see an opportunity now but I'm not sure if the buyers are there. The fundamentals here haven't really changed," she said.
Everyone involved in the rebuild will also be keeping a close eye on the prices for North American crude.
"The economy is going to be the big thing," Ms. Edwards says.
Chris Perkins, a Fort McMurray real estate consultant, wrote a widely-read blog about what Fort McMurray residents should expect as they head back – based on his conversations with realtors from Slave Lake. That community saw about one-third of its houses destroyed in a 2011 wildfire.
"Labour costs went up, through the roof, because there was so much demand," Mr. Perkins says of Slave Lake.
In Slave Lake, he said, there were also a lot of builders that came out of the woodwork – with varying degrees of skill and reliability. Many are now worried that unscrupulous contractors will try to take advantage of the situation in Fort McMurray as well. The Alberta government has deployed a "consumer investigation team" on the lookout for scams and price gouging for services such as renovations, home inspections and cleanup contracts.
Mr. Perkins noted Fort McMurray residents already have more experience than others with dealing with a rush of contractors and work. "Even when Fort McMurray was booming without fire, you had that issue – when you're just scrambling to keep up with demands, you had builders who cut corners."
From a rental perspective, most realtors expect that prices are likely to going to go up. But unlike Slave Lake – where Mr. Perkins said rents went up as much as 50 per cent in the months following the fire – Fort McMurray has more ability to absorb the demand for rental accommodation.
"We have more places for people to go because of all these basement suites – whereas Slave Lake didn't have that," Mr. Perkins said.
While many homeowners have been allowed back to Fort McMurray – at the very least to survey their property – many renters have only been allowed to return in recent days. Some are still waiting for the green light from landlords, who have scrambled to make sure premises are clean and safe.
Boardwalk Real Estate Investment Trust, one of the country's largest landlords, hired 100 cleaners for a massive six-day clean of smoke and soot at its 350 Fort McMurray units. Some residents were allowed back into their units on Friday.
David McIlveen, director of community development at Boardwalk, said there are 40 furnished and unfurnished units available for rent in Fort McMurray, and the company is surprised there haven't been more inquiries about them.
"Many people are taking a wait-and-see attitude," Mr. McIlveen said.
At the same time, work camp operators – many of whom had excess capacity before the wildfire hit – see an opportunity to provide temporary housing during the clean-up and rebuilding stage. Atco Ltd. will be expanding its Saline Creek Village, now a trailer camp accommodating 400 people near the Fort McMurray airport, to allow for 1,000 people in the weeks ahead. They are housing other temporary workers, including insurance adjustors and restoration contractors, at other pre-existing Atco camps north of Fort McMurray.
Jason Kielau, vice-president of modular construction and work-force lodging at Atco, said there is heavy demand for storage units, as well as modular structures including offices, lavatories and sleeping accommodation as people re-enter Fort McMurray.
Last month, the out-of-control Fort McMurray blaze ripped through Horizon North Logistics Inc.'s Blacksand Executive Lodge, destroying the upscale camp. Horizon chief executive officer Rod Graham pledged to rebuild some sort of a new facility on that site, and is going forward with a pre-existing plan to add capacity at the company's nearby Birch Mountain/Poplar Creek complex.
Mr. Graham says not only will there be demand from the contractors coming in to rebuild, but also for labour for planned maintenance at oil sands operations, and oil sands workers who aren't able to go back to their homes in Fort McMurray.
"We'll have a series of industrial workers that will be back on as they start to get facilities back up and going."
With a file from Justin Giovannetti in Fort McMurray