In ironic twist, Canada wildfire offers hope to homeless hurt by oil bust

Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires use a hockey rink full of beds  in Lac la Biche, Alberta in Canada.
Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires use a hockey rink full of beds in Lac la Biche, Alberta in Canada.PHOTO: REUTERS

LAC LA BICHE, Alberta (REUTERS) - The nearly 90,000 residents of Canadian oil boomtown Fort McMurray forced to flee a massive wildfire include some who were already homeless and now find themselves better off than before.

Terry MacDuff, 54, had been living in a tent for nearly five months when he evacuated Fort McMurray last Tuesday.

The fire, which has now burned for more than a week, emptied the city of residents and damaged an estimated 1,600 structures. While many flocked to insurance booths at the Lac la Biche evacuation centre to file claims for lost possessions or homes, MacDuff had little to lose in the fire.

"I'm living like a king here," said MacDuff, who lost his job as a long-haul truck driver in December after a bout of pneumonia.

His situation underscored the hard economic times that have befallen the city, which is sometimes dubbed Fort McMoney for the six-figure salaries its oil sands workers enjoyed before oil prices fell more than 70 per cent since mid-2014.

Alberta lost 20,800 jobs in April, according to the latest data from the government, the largest monthly decline since December 2008. An estimated 8,400 came from oil and gas, fishing, forestry and mining.

Since losing his trucking job, MacDuff, from Hawkesberry, a town of more than 10,000 in eastern Ontario, panhandles and even spent the winter lighting cigarettes for patrons outside Showgirls, a Fort McMurray strip club, an odd job that highlights the income disparity in the resource town.

MacDuff estimated there were some 100 homeless or near homeless evacuees at the Lac La Biche evacuation center.

Rayaaz Ali Shaw, who is also bunking in Lac La Biche, lost his maintenance job at the MacDonald Island recreation center two months ago. He currently shares a downtown apartment with four other guys for just C$500 (S$527) a month. "I have ten dollars to my name. You can't even buy a cookie with that," he said.

At Lac La Biche, evacuees are given a place to sleep, access to health services, unlimited food and a gym full of clothes and goods donated from the community.

MacDuff plans to return to Fort McMurray and believes that eventually more people will be put back to work as the city rebuilds.

"This fire saved a lot of people," he said. "There will be a lot of work in the cleanup."