Even before Gene Ouellette and his wife had made it out of town in the mass evacuation, they heard the news that their recreational vehicle dealership had been destroyed in the out-of-control fire.
Along with most houses in Fort McMurray's Waterways neighbourhood, Mr. Ouellette's Four Seasons Power Sports Ltd. was gutted by the forest fire that pushed its way into town one week ago. One aerial picture of the subdivision shows the skeletal structure of what used to be his 7,400-square foot building, alongside the burned-out storage lot on his property.
"It's decimated," Mr. Ouellette said.
But he insists his main concern isn't about the property, or the more than 100 snowmobiles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, side-by-sides and trailers that were also lost.
"I couldn't care less about the business. I couldn't care less about the structure. It's that my employees are now unemployed that is the hard part."
About 2,400 homes and other buildings have been swallowed up in the Fort McMurray fire, including whole businesses such as Mr. Ouellette's. Many small firms in the city will take weeks or months to get back to work – or face the possibility of never restarting – leaving owners and workers in a long limbo. Oil sands projects might be able to restart in the days ahead, but even displaced workers with jobs in those operations are concerned.
"One of the first things that people were saying is 'How long before we can go back to work?'" said Bruce Moffatt, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 955, which represents thousands of mobile-equipment operators in oil sands mining, construction and maintenance. "The reality is, most people live paycheque to paycheque and don't have a lot of resources."
The union is giving its members in the Fort McMurray area $500 to help them this week. Employers are doing what they can as well. Mr. Ouellette said he made sure his 15 workers had some pay last week.
Oil sands producers are also providing some help to displaced employees. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell PLC is reimbursing staff for hotel costs, restaurant meals and groceries up to a maximum combined total of $200 a day, according to an information form distributed to employees that was seen by The Globe and Mail.
But the fire's effect on employment will reverberate across the province, and the country, said economist Herb Emery. If you take the likely size of the Fort McMurray work force – which he ballparks at half the population of the city – and extrapolate that labour disruption to the province as a whole, Alberta's unemployment rate reaches nearly 10 per cent from April's official rate of 7.2 per cent, he said.
The work stoppage at oil sands facilities is going to affect not only those employed by those bitumen producers, but also those who work for a wide swath of oil field service companies across the province, and those who live in other parts of Canada but fly in and fly out for their jobs, said Prof. Emery, who serves as research director at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.
"It's not clear we'll count this as official unemployment, but there's going to be a lot of people with disrupted ability to earn."
Although the federal government has already said it will speed up processing times for employment insurance claims, and the Alberta government has promised evacuees $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent in emergency financial assistance, Prof. Emery said some broader form of social assistance for those affected by the Fort McMurray fire will likely be required. As the city rebuilds its residential housing and infrastructure, oil sands companies might rely more heavily on fly in/fly out workers and services, he added.
As was the case for many other businesses in the area, Mr. Ouellette's sales were already down the past 18 months because of the drop in oil prices and layoffs that have hammered Fort McMurray's economy and real estate market. He said business was starting to pick up a bit this spring due to the warm temperatures (the same warm temperatures that have contributed to the fire risk).
But he said the fire's impact on a region that was already in a period of economic stagnation will be massive. Many people had lost their jobs or saw their incomes cut and were already teetering on the edge financially, he said. Even many of those whose homes are still standing might not come back.
"Everybody wishes ill on McMurray because we make so much money. They don't understand how difficult it is to live when you've got a $1-million mortgage on a home that's worth $400,000 anywhere else," he said.
"I'm not ignorant to the fact – and I've accepted that – maybe half of our community will be gone," Mr. Ouellette added. "They're going to be using this [fire] as their way out."
Going forward, he will be focused with others on the rebuilding of the city, including shifting the focus of his business away from recreational toys and toward renting and selling construction equipment. He hopes local workers are hired for the cleanup and repair.
"Let's get in and let's rebuild – let's not just move away."
With a file from reporter Jeff Lewis in Calgary.