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Colleen Tatum, shown here before the Fort McMurray fire, is currently staying with her children in Edmonton while her husband reopens their automotive shop, MXC Automotive Services. (April 9, 2015)

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Adam Tatum has spent the past three weeks bouncing between friends' couches and the one located in the back of his downtown Fort McMurray auto shop. His family home is still too damaged from the wildfire that forced the evacuation of an entire city last month.

During the day, Mr. Tatum and two of his co-workers at MXC Automotive Services are trying to keep the business afloat, completing the tasks usually assigned to a staff of 10 people.

"We're managing, but we're doing everything – shipping and receiving, payroll, remittance. I'm having to do things I've never done before," Mr. Tatum said.

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Mr. Tatum co-owns the northern Alberta business with his wife Colleen. The Tatums reopened MXC Automotive Services in early June, wanting to get their auto repair shop up and running as quickly as possible in order to start making much-needed revenue again.

The small businesses that make up about 95 per cent of the more than 3,900 enterprises registered in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo face numerous challenges as they try to resume normal operations after the wildfire ravaged the city. The Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce has a list online of the planned reopening dates for some companies, although it does not include all businesses in the region. There are currently more than 300 businesses that have reopened on the list.

Many local business owners – the Tatums included – have learned that some commercial insurance doesn't include interruption coverage, meaning owners will not receive any compensation for lost revenue during the mandatory evacuation that kicked in May 3. Businesses are also contending with reduced staffing, clientele, and cash flow. Some have to deal with rebuilding damaged storefronts.

Though the Tatums' auto shop was not significantly damaged in the fire, they are still facing many hurdles during what most expect will be a long recovery.

"There are still customers coming in, but we're down probably 70 per cent in sales from before the fire, when we were going through a local recession," Mr. Tatum said. "We're busy, because it's just the three of us."

One of the mechanics who works at MXC Automotive Services lost his home in the wildfire and won't be returning to Fort McMurray in the near future. Another employee's home is so damaged he is focused on trying to get it back into liveable condition so his family can return.

"We need to earn revenue to be able to keep our business, but it creates a whole other series of problems," Ms. Tatum said from Edmonton, where she is currently staying with her three children, ages six, four and two. "Even if we were to hire someone from Edmonton, there's nowhere for them to stay. It's really hard to attract people right now, because they just don't have many options."

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Ms. Tatum also serves as a city councillor in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and has heard from business owners concerned about the recovery.

On June 10, the municipality teamed up with the Economic Developers Alberta, a non-profit networking and professional development group, to begin distributing $1,000 of emergency financial relief to all small businesses that qualify. The funding has been provided by the Canadian Red Cross.

In the initial days after the Red Cross began offering the financial relief, the hotline was inundated with about 150 calls a day on average from local business owners looking for assistance.

But for many businesses, $1,000 doesn't make a dent.

"There are so many different challenges, and they are so expensive," Ms. Tatum said, pointing to her business's costly rent of about $25,000 a month in Fort McMurray.

"I'm grateful they are thinking of us, but if I split that with my employees to try to make up for lost payroll, they're going to get $100 each."

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Angela Groeneveld, a business consultant contracted to help Economic Developers Alberta, says the financial relief is just the first step in what will be a lengthy recovery process.

"Of course we'd love it to be more," Ms. Groeneveld said. "This is step one, but we'll keep advocating for more. It's a Band-Aid, a very small Band-Aid. Businesses need bigger cash flow."

Ms. Groeneveld previously worked for the Town of High River, helping businesses recover after the 2013 floods. She says three years later, businesses in the community are still recovering, many of them struggling.

"People have a lot more debt on their business from cleaning up and recovering from the disaster, so cash flows are quite tight and customers have gone down," Ms. Groeneveld said. "If there was anywhere they could have had an injection of cash, that would have really helped them."

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