Fort McMurray: Understanding a city of dreams

Giller Prize-nominated author Fred Stenson on the long, complex past behind the mythic town
Fred Stenson
In a photo provided by the Canadian military, smoke from a wildfire billows over a neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 4, 2016. By Wednesday, about 88,000 people had been evacuated from Fort McMurray, and though no deaths or injuries directly related to the fire have been reported, the oil-industry boom town is still very much in danger. (Mcpl Vanputten/Canadian Armed Forces/The New York Times/Redux)
In a photo provided by the Canadian military, smoke from a wildfire billows over a neighborhood of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 4, 2016. By Wednesday, about 88,000 people had been evacuated from Fort McMurray, and though no deaths or injuries directly related to the fire have been reported, the oil-industry boom town is still very much in danger. (Mcpl Vanputten/Canadian Armed Forces/The New York Times/Redux)
Smoke from a wildfire billows over Fort McMurray, May 4, 2016. (Mcpl Vanputten/Canadian Armed Forces/The New York Times/Redux)

After a week of reports, images and commentary about the Fort McMurray fire, it will be a long time before mention of that city recalls anything to many Canadians but sadness and flames. Eighty-eight thousand Albertans in flight before an aggressive fire. Thirty-metre curtains of flame dancing in the giant black spruce. Cars shooting the fiery gap on their way to safety. Then came the exodus: thousands of vehicles, their headlights burrowing into smoke. When cameras finally roved the skeletal city, everything burned was a ghastly grey. There were no people and no animals in this once familiar place, the city I had come to often over three decades on one writing assignment or another.

I decided to switch over and see what the foreign journalists were saying. London’s Independent was all about the money: the insurance cost, the cost of rebuilding, the effect on the oil market. I looked at the New Yorker, and soon realized that that magazine’s story was not about a Canadian city coming close to destruction or people losing their homes, but about the “black irony” of it all: an oil capital consumed by the climate change its industry is causing. Elsewhere, the occasion called for defence of the oil sands industry’s environmental record.

It was a reminder that Fort McMurray, badly damaged and still smoking, is not the same place in everyone’s mind, and probably never was. For those who have worked in Fort Mac, have family or friends there, or have visited a few times, the city is at least tangible, the size and shape of itself. For everyone else, it’s a mix of myth, news and conjecture.

When the oil sands first boomed in the ’60s, it was the new Klondike, with Fort Mac playing Dawson City, a place for the jobless and the luckless to go in hopes of finding a nugget. Whether it was also a land of fun and excitement, or a den of vice and licentiousness, depended more on moral viewpoint than information. When Fort Mac was called the “third-largest city of Newfoundland,” the images stoked were of burly choristers at closing time, singing I’s the B’y.

Fort Mac FAQ: Maclean’s answers your questions about the Fort McMurray fire

As the oil sands industry and Fort Mac boomed and grew in later decades, they were the parts of a turbine powering the Canadian economy. Bitumen was the energy source of the future. The companies were the last best investment, like buying Apple shares when the founders were still in a garage. For migrants, Fort Mac and the oil sands were the new (albeit frozen) California, where they could go in their eight-cylinder covered wagons. The oil sands would finally make self-conscious Canada proud.

A persistent myth about McMurray was that it was no more than a pop-up city, recently uncrated. No matter how its civic planners and officials laboured to make Fort Mac a city of substance, even a green city, the myths of insubstantiality and criminality held in the minds of people who would never see the actual place. Fort McMurray’s remoteness makes it an ideal surface upon which to project our hopes and fears.

To some the oil sands look like salvation; to others, salvation’s opposite. If you dislike capitalism and corporations, you will see inequality and oppression in their gaudiest forms. For the geopolitically fearful, the oil sands are a way of freeing one’s nation from the shackles of energy dependency, of pulling the Red out from under the bed. If you love nature, it is nature scraped bare. For anyone convinced by scientific consensus that fossil-fuel consumption is heating the planet and its oceans, the third-biggest petroleum resource on the planet must be the third-biggest danger to humanity. In that scenario, Fort McMurray takes on the role of Doomsday’s bedroom community.

As I’ve fed on the news and opinion flowing out of Fort McMurray’s tragedy, I have increasingly been overtaken by a feeling that the fire has reduced Fort McMurray not just by 2,400 structures but to a non-place; maybe even a place that never was. If a myth burns, what exactly is destroyed? What remains? It’s as if we are grieving an unknown soldier who is not really unknown, nor even dead, just unmet.

Fort McMurray is a genuine oil boomtown, a descendant of the Azerbaijani oil fields of Baku and the Texan hill called Spindletop upon which the American oil industry was born. Resource boom stories are always about rags to riches. The oil sands version is a twentysomething, arriving in Fort McMurray with modest skills, who badabing! is soon driving a truck the size of an apartment block and pulling down six figures. It happens often enough to keep the economic migrants coming. The associated boomtown is always where the cash-laden workers flood to in search of illicit substances and arcane vices. In my own 2014 novel Who By Fire, about a morally troubled oil sands engineer living in McMurray, I got a bit carried away on the vices. In an otherwise positive review, ex-Fort McMurray writer Bob Armstrong, now of Winnipeg, chided me, saying that Winnipeg would be delighted to have Fort McMurray’s homicide rate.

Not all the dangers of Fort Mac are mythic. The perils of driving on Highway 63, the only ground route in and out of Fort McMurray, are real enough that it makes every year’s list of most dangerous highways. Many accidents have led to its being called Highway of Death and Suicide 63, the trouble being a bad combination of new pickups, impatient, tired and/or drunk drivers, heavily laden hauling trucks, and, for much of the way, two lanes. Add blowing snow and black ice come winter.

Of course, Fort Mac residents don’t much like it when non-residents spout off about what the city lacks or has too much of. This is partly because the negative stuff is only a part, and maybe not even a large part, of resident experience. It is probably true that most people come to Fort Mac for the money and the chance to put away a chunk and retire early to someplace warm, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to live good lives while Fort Mac is home. Fort McMurray has a very high birthrate: 36.1 per 1,000 women compared to a national average of 11. During last week’s fire, two babies were born in a northern work camp where the mothers had gone for refuge. The city has several new schools under construction (all of which amazingly escaped the fire). Since people don’t as a rule choose terrible places to raise and school their families, the statistics weigh on the side of Fort Mac’s virtue.

But if the people of Fort McMurray are furious when someone criticizes their city, they do reserve the right to criticize it themselves, and the sassiest lore about Fort Mac comes from its citizens. In Syncrude’s book about itself, A Billion Barrels for Canada, the chapter about Fort McMurray begins with a list of unsavoury people the booms have attracted. It lists a card shark who took $50,000 off the locals in one night and recalls the “love shack” that was hauled around to the gates of the various work camps. The perennial problem of Fort Mac housing (scarce and expensive) becomes an account of a fellow who tried to live through winter in a packing crate.

In Fort McMurray, which is only a small city, a few million Canadian dollars are gambled at the Casino every Saturday night. Many oil workers, away from their families and with their pockets full of money, are bored during the weekend and go to the Casino. Many have even lost all their savings in one night. Tar sands, or oil sands, are very dense and contain a form of petroleum The world's largest reserves of tar sands in Canada and Venezuela. Tar sands could equate to approximately two thirds of the total global petroleum resource. Until recently it was financially not viable to extract the oil from the sands, but new technology and rising oil prices have now made it viable. (Veronqiue de Viguerie/Getty Images)

People curious about the actual place may wonder why Fort McMurray is where it is. The reason is the confluence of four rivers: the Clearwater, Horse, Hangingstone, and Athabasca. Pretty well all comers will admit that it’s a beautiful location, and the bitumen seeping from the riverbanks made it a good spot for First Nations to stop and waterproof their canoes with pitch. The Peter Pond Hotel, one of Fort Mac’s oldest and once raciest hostelries, and the associated mall, are named for a Connecticut fur trader who came to this fur Eldorado in 1783. The city is named for William McMurray, a Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor who may or may not have ever seen the place.

In the 20th century, the village of Fort McMurray barely dawdled along, but its future greatness was all around it. Underlying the village, along both sides of the Clearwater, and for many miles up and down the Athabasca, bituminous sand was everywhere.

For a long time, the ubiquity of the oil sands mocked all suitors. Before 1910, Count Von Hammerstein of Germany drilled six wells near McMurray, hoping to strike the free pools of liquid oil he absolutely believed were under the sticky bitumen. Not there, as it turned out. Others sought to melt the bitumen. One fellow did so by pumping steam down the hole. The principle is not unlike what is now called in-situ steam recovery, but all this fellow achieved was a scalding.

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The person credited with cracking the mystery of separating the bitumen from the sand was Karl A. Clark, a frequent visitor to Fort McMurray from the 1920s onward. Clark camped along the rivers and hauled oil sand samples back to his lab in Edmonton, where he perfected the hot-water method. In a 1950s letter, he remarked on an improvement in Fort McMurray taxi service. He had flown in from Edmonton one day, and not only was the taxi on time, it was clean and so was the driver. The man and woman who usually supplied taxi service worked out of the local bar and were less punctual.

Partly based on Clark’s knowledge, a company called Abasand Oils finally did produce some oil from oil sands in the 1930s and ’40s. But the project was government-funded, and, after a couple of expensive fires, it closed.

Naturally Fort McMurray could not grow until someone figured out how to make money from oil sands. The alternative was someone so rich he could afford to lose. The stalemate broke when Great Canadian Oil Sands began constructing the first commercial oil sands facility in 1962. This was the brainchild of J. Howard Pew, scion of the family that founded Philadelphia’s Sun Oil. Decades before anyone shared his fear, Pew had a “peak oil” theory. He firmly believed the end of conventional oil was nigh, and this led him to Alberta’s oil sands. Oil from the plant began to flow down the Interprovincial Pipeline to Sarnia, Ont., in 1968.

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The late Canadian author Robert Kroetsch was in Fort McMurray in 1950 on his way to work on the riverboats of the McKenzie. He returned in 1967, at the exact moment that the old McMurray was giving way to the new oil sands McMurray. In his book, Alberta, Kroetsch wrote: “In 1950, I heard mostly barking and howling of sleigh-dogs here; now the dogs are gone and the roosters can’t make themselves heard over the roar of the earth-moving machines, the endless pecking of hammers on the new buildings.”

Among the stack of misconceptions that persist about Fort McMurray, the biggest is that it grew quickly and without interruption once the oil sands era began. In fact, it grew in spurts interrupted by long saggy intervals. The first sag came when the companies behind Syncrude, Fort McMurray’s second oil sands project, got cold feet at the end of the ’60s. What kept Syncrude from folding its tent was a deal hammered out in a stormy 12-hour meeting in Winnipeg in 1975. The result was that Alberta and Ontario were sudden part-owners of the project. Fort Mac was back to being a boomtown.

In the backdrop, meanwhile, were the energy crises of 1973 and 1979. The first was caused by an OPEC oil embargo; the second by the Iranian Revolution. Each bumped up the world oil price. During the 1970s, the price of oil climbed from $3/barrel to more than $60/barrel, and things looked very bright for Fort Mac and the oil sands—for about a year.

Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada 1978 (Steche/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
Fort McMurray, Alberta in 1978 (Steche/Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

In 1980, oil prices crashed. There was so much surplus oil that it took 20 years for the glut to wear off. In the 1980s, Fort McMurray shrank and Syncrude was again threatening to pull out. Alberta offered lower royalties to coax Syncrude to stick around.

Then, in 1996, prime minister Jean Chretien and Alberta premier Ralph Klein cooked up a red-hot oil sands promotion: $25 billion in tax breaks for investors. Because of the low oil price, the oil companies had been holding their cash. Klein barely had his “for sale” sign up when the coffers filled with lease money. That, plus a surge in the oil price, unleashed an absolute frenzy of construction along the Athabasca and in Fort McMurray. It brought a whole new generation of people to Fort Mac, and the city’s population powered upward: 47,705 in 2006; 61,374 in 2011. We know by the number of evacuees (88,000) that it is much higher today.

The years after 2000 were when Fort McMurray and the oil sands finally hit the big time. Probably because of the long lulls between earlier booms, people had simply forgotten about the place. A lot of people today are astounded to hear there were booms and busts before the 21st century.

Maclean’s longread: Tracking the Fort McMurray fire, from first smoke to fallout

In 2005, I wrote two one-hour television documentaries about the oil sands. They were lavish items produced by a private company. When the company tried to sell the shows to Canada’s big networks, they demurred. One of the network representatives said the subject was too obscure. A niche interest. He could not imagine drawing an audience to such a subject. Two years later, the news was very much out there. European film companies were crawling all over the oil sands and Fort McMurray, shooting films very much like ours for the European market.

During this biggest of all booms, several companies were trying to build oil sands projects at the same time. To describe the phenomenon, a Shell executive liked to use a Three Stooges reference. Every time the Three Stooges tried to get through a door, they would collide and jam. They’d withdraw, then they’d go at the same time and jam again. This, said the Shell executive, was exactly what the companies were doing with respect to hiring machinery and manpower.

The result was that recruiters went much farther afield. For a long time, the oil sands had been largely based on Alberta workers and Newfoundlanders. But the 2011 census told a far different story. It listed 80 mother tongues spoken by Fort McMurray residents. The human face of Fort Mac, never dull, had become the face of the world. A rare positive aspect of Fort McMurray’s fire is that Canadians are seeing that diversity on TV.

An oil sands worker named Kelly enjoys his supper outside his trailer home 13 June 2007 in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Like many other workers, he can afford many luxuries, but cannot afford a home or appartment in Fort McMurray. The plot on which he parks his trailer costs him and his roommate 910 Canadian dollars per month. A two-bedroom appartment in Fort McMurray runs almost three times that amount. (David Boily/AFP/Getty Images)
An oil sands worker outside his Fort McMurray trailer home in better times for the city. (David Boily/AFP/Getty Images)

For a time in the full flush of the boom, life in Fort McMurray was seen as enviable. The city’s average household income was twice that of the rest of Canada. Forty per cent of its income earners made more than $100,000 a year, five times the national average. The average age was 30. Life was good.

The herald of change was a 2009 feature in National Geographic magazine. Page after glorious page detailed what was wrong with the oil sands: destroyed boreal forest habitat, polluted tailing ponds, First Nation lands despoiled, river pollution, cancer and deformed fish downstream. The negative side of the world spotlight had abruptly arrived. Because Canada’s federal government under Stephen Harper had been so dismissive of climate change and the environment in general, Alberta’s oil sands became everybody’s example of what must change or stop if the world were to survive. Leonardo diCaprio and President Barack Obama expressed criticism. James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar, and Neil Young came to the oil sands to state their objections. Ironically, it was ex-Winnipegger Young who was the target of the counter-attack. How dare Neil leave Canada then come back and criticize our industry? (Since when did anyone have to live in Canada to come here and state a criticism?)

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Very simply, global opinion had finally accepted the science of climate change. At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015, world leaders agreed on a commitment to hold average world temperatures at two degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels. Included among the first-day signatories were the world’s worst carbon emitters: China and the United States—and Canada, laggard no longer.

By then, Fort McMurray and the oil sands were once again in decline. Conviction in the court of world opinion was part of it, but mostly it was another collapse in the world price of oil. Then, on the evening of May 1, 2016, a forest fire encroached on the southern edge of the city.

For the record, Alberta has seen larger fires. In his book The Chinchaga Firestorm, Cordy Tymstra described a 1950 fire that originated in northeastern B.C. and crossed into Alberta. It was estimated to have burned 1.4 to 1.7 million hectares of forest. That’s eight to 10 times larger than the Fort McMurray fire after its first week.

Chinchaga burned from June to the end of October. Because of its remoteness, no one fought it. It created such a mass of travelling smoke that it caused hours of midday darkness in Guelph, Ont. Torontonians had to drive with their headlights on in the daytime. Periods of daytime darkness were also recorded in New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida. The haze crossed the Atlantic and produced similar effects (darkness, blue moons and suns) in Europe. When the haze was sighted over the Aleutian Islands, in the Bering Sea, it meant the Alberta smoke had circumnavigated the globe.

The conditions that produced the Chinchaga fire are the same ones that have caused the Fort McMurray fire: intense drought in the boreal forest. Drought and heat equals forest fires, and 2016 is the fourth consecutive bad fire year in Alberta. Mike Flannigan is a professor in the department of renewable resources at the University of Alberta. As a wildfire specialist, he has been interviewed repeatedly since the Fort McMurray fire began. Over and over he explains that the fire is due to the dry short winter and late spring rains but also due to fire suppression. Controlling fires has made the existing boreal forest steadily more mature. Fires are nature’s method of renewal. Forests need to burn and they will burn. The more you suppress fire and the drier conditions become (dare I say it, due to climate change), the larger and hotter those fires will be.

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The last word belongs to Fort McMurray’s mayor, Melissa Blake. Having arrived in Fort McMurray with her family in 1982 at the age of 12, she became mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 2004. The job has always been high-stress, meeting the infrastructure and human service demands of unbridled growth. She brought Fort McMurray through its biggest boom, and now her duty is to lead it back from partial destruction. Will the people who have gone away return? Will the industry that has fed and starved Fort McMurray over the decades be the same industry in the wake of the fire, in the wake of the Paris Agreement?

Naturally, given she is the soul of optimism, these are not Mayor Blake’s questions. She told media last week, “The folks that come to my community are stronger, bolder, braver, more prone to succeed in what they do. These setbacks aren’t going to stop anybody who came with that kind of spirit in the first place. I think it will just be a stronger community when we come out of this.’’

Fred Stenson is a Giller Prize-shortlisted novelist and film writer based in Cochrane, Alta.