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Mayor doesn’t foresee big population shift after Fort McMurray wildfire

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake speaks during a press conference at Fire Hall 5 as residents re-enter fire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. .
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake speaks during a press conference at Fire Hall 5 as residents re-enter fire-ravaged Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan

Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake says she’s not expecting last May’s wildfire to have much of an impact on the Fort McMurray area’s long-term population.

Before the fire, the municipality was expecting growth of between one and three per cent over the next five years and Blake said Tuesday she’s not expecting that to shift much.

The downturn in oil prices and resulting layoffs had already caused the population to shrink in the oilsands region after years of breakneck growth during boom times.

“The economy has changed. Investment has diminished,” said Blake. “It’s a very different, more stable environment that we’re operating in.”

READ MORE: Wood Buffalo eliminates 168 jobs due to poor economy, Fort McMurray wildfire

In the near term, while some residents may have not come back since the fire, others are being attracted by a surge in construction activity as homes are rebuilt.

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“I think over a longer horizon we’re going to come out just net-even if you will,” said Blake.

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The city estimates a current population of about 73,500 – not far off from 2016’s pre-fire federal census numbers, the mayor said.

In 2015, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said it had a permanent population of almost 82,000 and a transient worker population of more than 43,000.

READ MORE: Worst may be over for Alberta economy, modest growth expected in 2017: Conference Board

On May 3, it will have been a year since a ferocious wildfire spread into Fort McMurray and forced everyone out of the northern Alberta city. Nearly 2,600 dwellings were destroyed.

Most of the damaged areas are busy with construction and 33 families were back in their homes as of early April.

“I think that we’re making some really good progress, but for every day that we have people that are not where they want to be, it feels like it’s not fast enough,” said Blake.

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Jody Butz, the municipality’s new fire chief, said there has been little turnover in the department since the fire and they have had no trouble recruiting eight new members.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray fire chief ‘guilty’ for retiring but has no regrets on handling the wildfire

The new recruits are training now and start their jobs on Monday.

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“I think that the wildfire last year maybe put our department in, I guess, a bit of a spotlight and I’m encouraged with those results.”