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Post-fire construction boom in Fort McMurray expected to surpass height of oilsands frenzy

As Darrin Eckel walks through the nearly finished living room in his rental property in Fort McMurray, Alta., he reflects on the work that’s been done over the past five months to rebuild the burnt-out house from scratch.

“We are right in the finishing stages,” says Eckel, who is both the builder and owner of the two-unit house.

It was one of the nearly  2,400 buildings destroyed when a massive fire swept through the city on May 3, and it’s the first to be completely rebuilt.

Fort McMurray rebuild

This house in the Wood Buffalo neighbourhood was the first to be rebuilt following the wildfire in May. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Eckel, who is president of Vis-Star homes, received the first building permit from the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in August. He and his crew used the same floor plan as the house that burned down.  

He says everyone in the neighbourhood noticed when the house began to go up in the fall.

“We actually had some progress,” he says. “You felt that something was happening now, and we are rebuilding.”

Housing boom

There are 160 homes under construction in Fort McMurray, with the bulk of the building underway in the neighbourhoods of Thickwood and Timberlea. Housing starts slowed once winter set in, but are expected to ramp up to record levels when the ground thaws.

Eckel has already committed to building 30 homes next year. With so many projects on the go at once, he says the biggest challenge will be trying to keep people happy. All his clients want to be in their homes by next Christmas, he says.

“Everybody is going to want [their home] first.”

stone creek

Dozens of homes are under construction in the neighbourhood of Stone Creek. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

The springtime construction boom will be unprecedented, even for a city that experienced its fair share of frenetic development during the height of the oilsands boom.

“We have built 600 or 700 homes in a summer before, but the difference is that has all been in new subdivisions,” says Erin O’Neill, operations manager of Fort McMurray’s recovery task force.

Life in a construction zone

She says construction this spring will be spread throughout the city, with blocks of new homes going up on streets where other houses are still standing and occupied. Her biggest concern is making sure residents can go about their daily lives even though much of the city will be a construction zone.

“How do we make sure that if our schools are reopened, and we have kids outside playing and walking down the sidewalk, how do we continue to sustain that quality of life while we are in the rebuild?”

Erin O'Neill

Erin O’Neill, manager of Fort McMurray’s recovery task force, says her biggest concern is making sure residents can go about their daily lives even though much of the city will be a construction zone this spring. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

She says the municipality is working on a plan that will include having someone in place in each neighbourhood to act as a co-ordinator between the different construction crews.

Before the fire, the city was in the middle of a downturn because of slumping oil prices. But some of those people who were laid off have since found work building homes.

Eckel has already hired five new permanent staff. In the spring, the municipality plans to hold a home show and a job fair to help connect contractors with the companies who need them.

‘We have been in limbo’

Many homeowners who haven’t started rebuilding yet will be spending time over the winter completing their paperwork, including applying for the necessary permits and settling insurance claims.

Some residents are further along in that process than others. In the Waterways neighbourhood, for example, there was a long delay as officials considered whether people should rebuild there at all.

Of the 238 homes that burned down in the neighbourhood, more than half were located in a flood hazard zone.

“We have been in limbo,” says Yvonne Ormson, who’s lived in the neighbourhood for seven years.

Yvonne Ormson

Fort McMurray resident Yvonne Ormson stands in front of her property in Waterways. The neighbourhood has seen little rebuilding so far because much of it lies on a flood plain. (Terry Reith/CBC News)

She was hoping the municipality would offer residents a buyout so they could build elsewhere, but earlier this month officials announced that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, the municipality plans to invest in flood mitigation measures, including a wall, so residents can rebuild on their lots.

But before Ormson begins filling out her paperwork and settling on a new house design, she has another decision to make: whether to rebuild or just move on.

“I do not want to be in Waterways at all,” she says.

“I just want to move forward.”

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