NEWS IN FOCUS
Alberta RV Dealers, Campgrounds Eye Future
As the smoke clears over the fire-ravaged town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, the massive wildfire that has ravaged millions of acres in the northern reaches of the province continues to burn, but has moved away from populated areas and oilfield camps, leaving government personnel to begin rebuilding efforts and giving displaced residents a timeline for return and assessment.
The Alberta government will begin allowing residents to return in phases starting June 1, although the town will still be under a water boil advisory until further notice. Electrical and natural gas service has been restored to 90% of the town. Approximately 2,400 homes were destroyed by the fire.
For the RV industry in the area, the silver lining of the disaster has been the ability to assist Fort McMurray residents with temporary shelter, either in the form of free or discounted campsites or in sales and rentals of new RVs and RV parts.
“The net effect is that our dealer-members are all getting lots of phone calls from all kinds of people who need portable housing right now before they move into their houses back in Ft. McMurray,” said Dan Merkowsky, executive vice president of the RV Dealers Association (RVDA) of Alberta.
“And so we’ve seen a real upswing in people who have needed new units delivered, and we’ve also seen a surge in people coming in and getting repairs on their units that are parking them in facilities operated by some of our campground members here in Alberta,” he continued. “We’re proud to say that a lot of the campground members have stepped up and are giving their sites away for free or for a discount to make sure residents have a place to go for now.”
Merkowsky said that four major campgrounds in the Fort McMurray area were destroyed, taking an estimated 1,000 campsites away from the mostly oilfield employees who occupied them.
“It’s now just a matter of creating temporary RV park developments and hauling water in and sewer out, so people can at least get back to work,” he said. “So dealerships in the area have been very busy and we’re anticipating a very strong June, July and August.”
Although nearly 10,000 workers were evacuated from the Suncor and Syncrude oil sands sites last week, that order was lifted over the weekend and operations at all oil production facilities in the area have returned to 100%.
Clayton Phillips, director of sales at Woody’s RV in Calgary, said that they have certainly felt the rise in demand created by the fire.
“We were feeling the pinch and it revived sales,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen a significant increase in business although it’s hard to see that come as a result of people losing their homes in some cases. But even people who haven’t lost their homes are coming in to either buy new RVs as temporary homes or parts and accessories. Lots of people have told me that this just fast tracked their purchase of an RV because they’d been wanting to do it for a long time anyway.”
And while the immediate danger has passed, Phillips said the rebuilding effort will not be like flipping a switch, and neither will be a return to normality for residents.
“For example, we had a displaced Fort McMurray resident over to dinner and even though her home didn’t get damaged, she’s got two dogs and four kids ages 11 to 17 in a 35-foot trailer, two of them diagnosed with autism,” he said. “So her home is okay but she still said she’s having nervous breakdowns.”
Another woman described to him how she’d just taken delivery of a travel trailer in her driveway when the fire hit a few hours later, destroying both the home and the RV because there was no time to hook it up.
“We know it’s been very hard on a lot of people, but we’re hoping that rebuilding the town will help to stimulate the economy and bring everyone together,” Phillips said.
With cooler weather and scattered rain returning to the area last week, the Fort McMurray wildfire has slowed its pace, although officials predict that it could continue to burn throughout the summer if warm weather patterns continue. To date, the fire has consumed 2,027 square miles of forest, which is an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island and just shy of Delaware.