Wildfire evacuations prompt business closures, staff reductions in Fort McMurray

Union business manager says workers are worried about not getting paid

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Most of Fort McMurray is not under an evacuation order, but wildfire burning near the community has prompted many businesses in the region to temporarily close or reduce operations.

Dianna de Sousa, executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, said some local businesses have remained open but others have been closed, for a variety of reasons.

She said traumatic memories of the 2016 wildfire, which destroyed neighbourhoods and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, likely affected some decisions.

"I do think a fair number of people in the non-evacuated area left and a lot of this is just based on the experience in 2016," she said.

She said she herself fled Fort McMurray to Leduc, near Edmonton, with her husband and two cats — as a precaution.

Closed stores, no customers

Mohamed Tarrabin, who co-owns Prestige Jewellers in Peter Pond Mall and runs a consulting company, said he decided to stay in town but estimates about half of residents left.

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He said school closures, a lack of child care options in the community and mental health concerns related to the 2016 fire are affecting workers.

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He said most stores in the shopping mall were closed on Wednesday, including his own, and though two of his staff members offered to open the jewelry store on Thursday morning, no customers came.

The wildfire disruptions will hurt businesses during a time when they are already struggling with inflation, he said.

And he said he does not expect insurance companies to reimburse businesses for lost revenue if they were not under evacuation orders.

"It looks like we are on our own," Tarrabin said.

CBC - Fort McMurray business closures - Travis McEwan

A store closure sign is displayed on the door of a Shell gas station in Fort McMurray. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

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He said even once residents have returned, shopping may not be their first priority and it could take some time for businesses to bounce back.

In the meantime, he said, he has been busy helping with emergency food and shelter initiatives in town.

De Sousa said there will be negative impacts on businesses but she hopes things start returning to normal by early next week.

"I think we'll see most of them come back and stand on their feet and the community will rally where it needs to, as it always does to try to support them," she said.

Fewer staff

The wildfire in May 2016 led to oil sands production losses as much as one million barrels a day but production had fully recovered by August, according to the Canada Energy Regulator.

An Imperial Oil spokesperson said on Wednesday that there have been no direct operations to its Kearl mine so far but staffing levels were being reduced to essential staff only as a precaution.

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CBC - Prestige Jewellers - Submitted by Mohamed Tarrabin

Mohamed Tarrabin says Prestige Jewellers reopened on Thursday morning but no customers visited the store. (Submitted by Mohamed Tarrabin)

A Suncor Energy spokesperson said there was no risk to its operations but the company recognizes employees and contractors are affected by the wildfire situation.

A spokesperson for Canadian Natural Resources said its daily operations remain stable and it was closely monitoring the wildfire.

Worried workers

Chris Flett, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 955, said many of the union's members are contract workers, so if they are told not to come to work, they won't get paid.

"There's definitely a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety that comes with it. And they're balancing what's best for their family and their own personal wellness but also their financial situation," he said.

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Flett, who lost his Beacon Hill home in the 2016 fire, said the union has since established an evacuation support account for members.

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Suspended mail service

Mail service interruptions are also affecting businesses' ability to fulfil orders.

Canada Post said Thursday morning that delivery has been suspended to Anzac, Chard, Conklin, Fort McKay and Fort McMurray and there could be delays with mail service to Fort Chipewyan.

This article, written by Madeleine Cummings, was originally published for CBC News on Friday, May 17.