“It’s devastating. Just tragic. The city needs to be completely rebuilt.”

Those were the words Viking West’s President Mike Schlender used recently when the conversation shifted to the wildfire in the northern Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Mike is originally from Alberta and knows the economic landscape well. Come to think of it, Mike and his team at Viking know the physical landscape pretty well, too. The province’s oil lies beneath Fort McMurray and comes up through refineries and eventually into veins of pipe that open up to consumers all over the world.

However, as the wildfire burned out of control in early May, it wasn’t the economic impact of the damage that floated to the top of our minds.

Escape on the Highway from Hell

No stretch of road captures the essence of the western Canadian prairies like Highway 63, the gateway to Fort McMurray. I don’t remember exactly how long the drive is from Edmonton, where I grew up, to Fort McMurray, and I’m having a difficult time finding that answer online — it’s as though Fort McMurray has been wiped off the face of the earth.

Ah, finally; 515 kilometers (320 miles), so about five hours or so. It’s a drive thousands of Edmontonians make on a regular basis. Fort McMurray’s shadow population — temporary residents who descend on the city to ply their trade in the oil sands or in the retail or restaurant industries — accounts for about 20 percent of the city’s population.

They come from points south in Alberta. They come from Newfoundland. They come from the other side of the planet.

They come to play an important role in the continued development of the international petroleum industry.

But without a road to drive on or an airport to land in, they won’t be coming any time soon.

An Abrupt Halt in Boomtown

Along with natural gas and oil pipelines, Fort McMurray rose to prominence in the last two decades, doubling in size, thanks to a vibrant forestry sector, an industry that’s near and dear to our hearts. The irony is that this relationship with the dense pines contributed directly to the flames overtaking streets and buildings, and smoke blocking out the light of the sun. Surrounded by boreal forest on all sides, it’s easy to cast a hindsight glance and question the city’s proximity to what we now know is a volatile location.

Just like New Orleans or Japan.

Comparing natural disasters is a fool’s errand the same as comparing apples to oranges, but it does illustrate a point. When a city’s defenses fail and Mother Nature’s raw power overflows into the residential domain, stealing our control, it’s not the imbalance between oil’s supply and demand that truly matters.

It’s the people. The women, men and children living and working smack in the middle of the flat, simple prairie.

It’s people who serve as the scaffolding for the economy, not the other way around. Ultimately, fueled by hard-working people, that economy will surround Fort McMurray like a cool shower to douse the flames.

We have a town to rebuild.

Perspective on the Horizon 

Imagine waking up to a town-wide inferno normally reserved for campy disaster flicks. Imagine you were given 10 minutes to gather who and what you could before your home went up in flames. This is the hand dealt to both the permanent and temporary residents of Fort McMurray: hearty men and women of the oil patch earning an honest living with their ingenuity, their labor and their leadership.

As the ash settles on the abandoned streets of this iconic Albertan city, three kids at heart working in the heavy equipment attachment business on the west coast are hoping for a new Fort McMurray that’s as strong and vital as ever.

This is a city that’s going to need a lot of skilled help in the years to come.

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