Fort McMurray is the largest community in the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada. It lost its city status in 1995 when it merged with a large rural area to form the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Fort McMurray was established as a Hudson's Bay Company post by 1870; the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway arrived in 1915 complementing existing steamboat service. By 1966, this tiny town had 2000 people.
Since then, the fate of Fort McMurray has been closely tied to that of Canada's oil sands industry. Suncor, Syncrude, Albian Sands, CNRL, OptiNexen and Deer Creek operate oil sands camps north and southeast of town. When world oil prices were high, population rose (an estimated 88000 people) while housing costs and average wages in "Fort McMoney" skyrocketed. When the price of oil cratered in 2015, many workers who had come from as far afield as Newfoundland quietly packed their bags for home.
In May 2016, the entire city population was evacuated due to wildfires which destroyed a substantial part of town; many fled south (toward Athabasca and Lac La Biche), but thousands were stranded north of the city for days in the sprawling oil sands camps around the tiny Fort MacKay native community. This population is now mostly in exile in Edmonton and other communities closer to the beaten path. While oil sands facilities are undamaged and preparing to resume operations, 2432 buildings in the city have been destroyed and another 530 damaged, leaving temporarily a ghost town with 25,000 buildings still standing and a skeleton thousand-person workforce providing emergency first response and repairs to primary infrastructure.
Neighbourhoods which may still be standing include:
- Downtown, or Lower Townsite, is the centre of action that takes place in the town. Fairly easy to navigate, the main thoroughfare is the ever so congested Franklin Avenue. Most of the city's services are here. You can expect to find the box-stores here, restaurants, clubs, shopping malls, and more.
- Gregoire - A combination of trailer parks, condos, and retail. There are a few restaurants and stores in this neighbourhood, as well as a selection of both hotels and motels. This and Downtown are the only parts of Fort McMurray with hotels.
- Thickwood, or Thickwood Heights is a large subdivision with approximately 20,000 people making it the second largest subdivision in FortMac. One can expect to find it very similar to Downtown. The main road is Thickwood Blvd.
- Dickinsfield - Primarily residential with several services.
These areas have experienced a moderate amount of damage:
- Wood Buffalo - Primarily residential with several services, a newer area of town.
- Timberlea - The largest subdivision in FortMac with approximately 35,000 people. Most of the new construction in town takes place in this area. Mostly residential, however several supermarkets, restaurants and stores have opened. Includes many smaller "sub"-subdivisions such as Lakewood, Parsons Creek and Confederation Heights.
These areas appear to be extensively damaged or destroyed:
- Beacon Hill - A primarily residential community, had some stores and an arena.
- Waterways - The oldest part of FortMac. A primarily residential community, had some stores.
- Abasand Heights - Primarily residential with several services.
Fort McMurray Airport (YMM) had several flights daily between Edmonton and Calgary and one daily flight between St. John's Newfoundland which stopped in Toronto en route. Passenger services were suspended in May 2016, but (as of June 10) are being reinstated.
Individual oil sands camps have airstrips on-site which are often large enough to accommodate jet aircraft, but offer no scheduled services.
Highway 63 is the main road to Fort McMurray, about 450 kilometres NE of Edmonton. It is paralleled by Highway 881 for about 200 kilometres. Portions of the road remain one lane in each direction; twinning is in progress but incomplete. Some passing lanes have been installed. While large, wide loads and truck traffic both use the highway, traffic counts are low except Thursday nights (southbound) and Sunday afternoons/evenings (northbound).
Highway 63 has become notorious for vehicle accidents, particularly in the remaining two-lane sections. Many people commute to the oil sands from communities south, adding to the strain. Most structures for the oil sands are built in Edmonton and trucked up north, which can take up the entire highway.
Passenger rail service ended in 1986. While there's been some talk about upgrading the existing rail freight corridor, there's no real prospect of bringing back passenger trains.
Fort McMurray is a loose cluster of several dozen subdivisions, many having only one entry/exit. Most subdivisions are pedestrian friendly, however to travel from one part of town to the other end, a vehicle is definitely recommended.
Fort McMurray has an extensive public transit system that reaches all areas of the city. Service is infrequent and the bus often arrives late.
Taxi cabs are easily available. Taxi cab companies include:
- Access Taxi & Limo Service, +1 780 743-3333 / +1 780 742-8026
- Citycabs, +1 780 750 3636 (special phone rate)
- Comfort Shuttle and Charter Service - ask for Sonny (special rates to Oilsand Plants, sites & camps and for oil sands workers), +1 780 742-8026
- Sun Taxi, +1 780 743-5050
- United Class Cabs, +1 780 743-1234
- Oil Sands Discovery Centre, 515 MacKenzie Blvd, ☎ . 10AM-4PM Tue-Sun off-season, 9AM-5PM daily from mid May-Labour Day. History of the oil sands and the rapid pace of development north of the city, exhibits of machines used to process the oil and opportunities to see how oil sand is mined and converted into product. $8/person, $25/family, 20% CAA/AAA discount.
- Fort McMurray Tourism, +1-800-565-3947, schedules tours of Syncrude or Suncor, the main oil sand plants, from May to September. Reservations are required 24 hours in advance (one week to 10 days advance booking recommended). Children under 12 are not allowed on the tour.
- Aurora Borealis, the "Northern Lights" are a must see in Fort McMurray. Tour guides such as Alberta Sky +1 780-452-5187 and Aurora Tours +1 780-334-2292 can arrange viewings of the elusive lights.
- Points North Adventures, +1 780 743-9350, , offers canoe trips and rentals, river tours, and jet boat rides.
Souvenirs of Fort McMurray and the oil sands can be found at the Discovery Centre and specialty retail outlets. Some places, you can purchase small vials of actual oil sand, and different products that are associated with the process all the way to the final product - synthetic crude.
Fort McMurray has several shopping areas and malls. Peter Pond Shopping Centre, 9713 Hardin Street, +1 780-791-4044 is the main mall. It is, however quite small for a city of 80,000 people. Stoneycreek Village (112 Riverstone Ridge, Timberlea) is a more recent addition.
Various national chains are present, including Boston Pizza, Earls Kitchen + Bar, The Keg Steakhouse and Montana's.
- The Fish Place, 412 Thickwood Blvd, ☎ . licensed steak and seafood restaurant; Canadian foods with a touch of international flair.
- Fuji Japanese Restaurant, 8706 Franklin Ave, ☎ , fax: .
- Kozy Korner Family Restaurant, 8802 Franklin Ave, ☎ . Home-cooked style food.
- Moxie's Classic Grill & Bar, #100-9521 Franklin Ave, ☎ . National chain with burgers and fries, seafood, salads and pasta. Kid-friendly casual dining restaurant, patio, drink specials daily.
- Yoshi Japanese Restaurant, 9612 Franklin Ave, ☎ . Sushi, seafood.
The legal drinking age in Alberta is 18.
- Black Horse Pub, 8-700 Signal Rd, Thickwood, ☎ . 11AM-2AM.
- Fort McMurray Newfoundlanders Club, 36 Riedel St, ☎ . All kinds of music are played here - club mix, country, rock, and yes, Newfie music. This place fills up quickly on a Friday or Saturday night.
- Paddy McSwiggins, 320 Thickwood Blvd, ☎ . An Irish pub in Thickwood.
- Tavern On Main, 9708 Main St, ☎ . 11:00AM-2:00AM. A smaller tavern located about a block north of the Peter Pond Shopping Centre.
- McMurray Inn, 9906 Saunderson Avenue, ☎ .
- Twin Pine Motor Inn, 10024 Biggs Ave, ☎ .
- Oil Sands Hotel, 10007 Franklin Ave, ☎ . Diggers, Oil Can Tavern, Teasers are located in the hotel; Diggers is a typical nightclub music bar, Oil Can has live country music and Teasers has nude dancers.
- Merit Hotel & Suites, 8200 Franklin Ave, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: .
- Radisson Hotel, 435 Gregoire Dr, ☎ .
- Podollan Inns, 10131 Franklin Avenue, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: .
- Stonebridge Hotel, 9713 Hardin St, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: .
- Vantage Hotel, 200 Parent Way, ☎ , toll-free: .
- Quality Hotel Fort Mcmurray, 424 Gregoire Dr, ☎ .
- Bridgeport Inn, 10021 Biggs Ave, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: .
- Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre, 530 McKenzie Blvd, ☎ . Full-service hotel with indoor pool and jacuzzi, fitness centre, business centre, free parking, high speed Internet. Hearthstone Lounge and Grille (11am to midnight, meals $12 to $30) in open concept lobby offers a wide selection of Canadian and local specialties, breakfast and lunch buffets, along with spirits, wine and beer. Jiggs Dinner featured every Sunday.
- Chez Dube Country Inn, 10102 Fraser Ave, ☎ , toll-free: , fax: .
Fort McMurray can be known for its brutally cold winters. Temperatures can sometimes drop to -35° or -45°C. It is very important that your vehicle is winterised and the engine block heater plugged in. Don't forget to bundle up!
When in Fort McMurray, be bear aware. Any open or accessible food or garbage will attract black bears, many of them displaced from their usual habitats by the May 2016 wildfire. Alberta Fish and Wildlife's "report a poacher" snitch line (+1 403-297-6423 or +1-800-642-3800) is accepting reports of bear sightings in populated areas.
North of Fort McMurray
Given Fort McMurray's rather isolated location, there is relatively little further north. The oil sands camps are large but self-contained. There is one small village accessible on Highway 63.
- Fort MacKay – a small native community (population 400) located 55 km north, the last community of any size on the highway.
It is possible to continue further north on the Athabasca River to the Slave River by boat (in summer); there's an ice road in winter.
- Fort Chipewyan – also known as Fort Chip, is located 250 km north of Fort Mac. Travel by road is only permitted in winter as there are ice crossings.
- Fort Smith (NWT) and Wood Buffalo National Park – 260 km beyond Fort Chipewyan, direct travel by road is only possible in winter. (There are all-season roads through Athabasca-Slave Lake-Hay River-Wood Buffalo National Park, but from Fort Mac that is the 1300km "long way around")
South of Fort McMurray
The trip from Fort McMurray to Edmonton is about 440km.
For the first 25km, Highway 63 represents a single point of failure for all traffic out of Fort McMurray. It runs south through forest, ending 250km later at Highway 55 between Athabasca and Lac La Biche. The next settlement on the main road is Wandering River, a tiny hamlet 200km south of Fort Mac.
Highway 881 splits from the main road 25km south of Fort Mac to go east through Anzac then south to Lac La Biche. The small hamlet of Anzac (pop 750, about 20km down Hwy 881) offers country-style living, services including a general store and proximity to the Long Lake oilsands project. Highway 881 continues south through mostly forest with few, tiny hamlets such as Janvier and Conklin with at most a few hundred people each.
A secondary highway, Route 956, runs from Highway 881 east to Clearwater River in northern Saskatchewan; this provincial park is 200km east of Fort Mac and just as isolated.