It started off as a regular day. But shortly after restaurateur Andy Parker and his staff had served lunch on Tuesday at their Prime Social Kitchen in south Fort McMurray, the smoke changed.
"On the streets, people are panicking. They were driving on the sidewalks. They were driving on the medians," he said.
Before their eyes, the neighbourhood of Beacon Hill was swallowed up by fire. Mr. Parker, 48, and his staff are now safe in Edmonton, but with hundreds of Fort McMurray homes and other buildings lost, and fires still raging in and around the community, the future for the small businesses there is hazy at best.
Mr. Parker, for one, isn't sure whether his restaurant or his house will still be standing once the fire stops – or how much will be left of Fort McMurray.
"If you lose all of your downtown or all the neighbourhoods, I don't know what happens," he said Wednesday afternoon. "But I know a lot of business owners, and they're my friends, and they care about Fort Mac, so I don't see people giving up and just walking away."
Commerce in Fort McMurray is shut down while all efforts are thrown into helping evacuees and stopping the flames. Once the smoke clears, a long and uncertain rebuilding begins.
There could be a stark divide between businesses that cater to the oil sands industry and those that rely on spending by residents, former MLA Mike Allen said.
Mr. Allen also owns Campbell's Music in downtown Fort McMurray. Many businesses that cater specifically to the demands of oil sands operators are likely to be able to pick up where they left off relatively easily, he said, assuming bitumen mining and in situ operations continue.
"But for those that are in the smaller retail sector, how many of our customers have lost homes? How many will return? How long can you sustain no business? It will be a matter of wait and see."
Peter Fortna, a consultant who works with the McMurray Métis aboriginal group and lost his home in the blaze, said damaged or razed houses that had been on the market, some as long as 10 months, may never be rebuilt. Oil sands labourers had only recently begun to settle in the city, helping it shed its image as simply a northern boom town known for its gruelling work hours and hard partying. Now the community faces the daunting task of rebuilding amid one of the worst economic downturns in a generation.
"A lot of those houses will never be rebuilt if oil stays at current prices," Mr. Fortna said on Wednesday from Edmonton. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens with Fort McMurray in the short term, whether people go back, or whether people just stay where they are and fly in and fly out."
He added: "These are all probably questions for another day, but nonetheless, these are the issues that people are dealing with."
At the same time, one silver lining of low crude prices and a slow oil economy is that oil sands camps and Northern Alberta hotels – full to capacity during boom years – had spare room for evacuees this week.
"Can you imagine if this happened two years ago at the height of the market? Where would all these people have gone?" said Eric Watson, chief operating officer for MasterBuilt Hotels Ltd., who watched his company's recently renovated Super 8 in Fort McMurray burn to the ground, live on TV, on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, those business people who remained in Fort McMurray were there to fight fires. Oil sands operators sent their in-house firefighting teams at the outset of the evacuation, and Scott Van Vliet, president of Environmental Refuelling Systems Inc. – which normally supplies fuel to oil sands operations – has its massive fuel tanks and fuel trucks supplying firefighting and police vehicles.
"They don't get very far without fuel," Mr. Van Vliet said.
Fort McKay First Nation – which is based in the hamlet of that name 50 kilometres north of Fort McMurray – is serving as a refuge for people fleeing the city, while its band-owned companies have pitched in with logistics in meeting their needs. Up to 15,000 people went north and are sheltered in residents' homes in Fort McKay, and in oil-company camps.
"The huge focus is getting people safe and in a safe environment," said Barrie Robb, chief executive officer of business development for the band. "The companies that we own, the companies that we are partnered with and the companies we do business with have been exceedingly helpful in that regard."
With reports from Jeff Lewis and Shawn McCarthy