E-letter: Fort McMurray down

Although the Fort McMurray fire is still burning, the threat to the city has been diminished and media and officials have been able to survey the damage. As of presstime, about 2,400 structures have been destroyed, most of which are residences.

Kerry Knudsen

Kerry Knudsen

Each of these residences will need flooring, cabinetry, furniture and other functional items for “occupied space.” And, while the push will be on for framing, roofing, plumbing and electrical, the demand for our products and services will not be far behind and equally necessary to habitation.

Last week as the fire raged, we decided to repurpose this e-letter to one industry-specific to the fire and Fort McMurray. We would especially like to thank the sponsors that wanted to help, and you will find information in the main story and sidebars to help if you are from the area, or to help supply if you are in the rest of Canada.

We have had requests to know whether donations can be made through Wood Industry, and they can. If you want to add volume to the donations as an industry, you can send your donation, payable to W.I. Media Inc. and put Fort McMurray Fire in the memo line. We have committed to donate 10 percent of all ad revenues on this letter to the effort, and suppliers will be adding their donations, as well. We will not withhold any revenues for “administrative” or other purposes, and we will make a full report once we send the cheque.

Thanks in advance for your thoughtful consideration. With luck the rest us will never experience the loss of memories, pictures and pets that fires represent. Let’s let Alberta know Canada’s wood industry is one of the family.

Sincerely, The team at W.I. Media Inc.

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Fort McMurray down

By Mike Edwards

The toll on Slave Lake, Alta., after 2011 wildfires consumed over 500 homes and displaced more than 16,000 people was devastating. The wildfires raging in and around Fort McMurray, Alta., however, are even more catastrophic with thousands of homes and businesses lost and over 80,000 evacuated.

Luckily, individuals and organizations such as the Red Cross with the dollar-for-dollar donation matching of the Federal and Alberta Provincial Governments, are taking care of the immediate physical comfort needs of Fort McMurray residents as they scatter to neighbouring towns and cities for refuge. (How you can help.)

At a meeting of the Architectural Woodworking Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC) in Edmonton, Alta., last week, members discussed how they could assist those in distress right now. One member’s business in Fort McMurray “confirmed that they were able to get out of town,” says Kevin Balicki, president of the Northern Alberta Chapter of AWMAC and general manager at Edmonton-based Formations Inc. At the meeting, three member firms offered employment to the displayed staff at their shops, with a fourth coming forward the following morning with same offer, according to Balicki.

When the fires finally went out in Slave Lake, it took a couple of weeks before people could return to the homes still standing. Normal things, like having a running refrigerator, suddenly become a challenge. The power outage over a period of days meant that many people’s food and fridges were unsafe and unusable. Red Cross gave 75 fridges to affected residents and coolers to hunters to store their meat, among other essential household goods.

According to Calvin Beauchamp of Tru-Line Construction of Slave Lake, “you come back and your fridges are leaking on the floor, and you have to start your insurance claims. But you’re fortunate that you still have your belongings, unfortunately a lot of people did lose everything — which is terrible.”

Wayne Schell, co-owner and manager of family-owned Nufloors in Slave Lake, lost his home to the fire of 2011. Brother Mark is also co-owner and manager. Once the fire was out, “the authorities basically closed the town down for two weeks,” says Wayne, “and they cleaned up all the basements and got all the sites cleared of debris. They made it so they got a lot of services underway already.

“It took a long time before the build started because there was just so much damage to everything. All the infrastructure and everything was damaged.”

The recovery in Slave Lake included construction trade shows in the arena with different builders and suppliers. “They covered everything,” says Wayne, “what to expect and how it’s going to go — but a lot of trouble came into town too.

“We were very under manned here and so many outsiders came in and a lot of ones who we wish didn’t. Still to this day there are a lot of people fighting in court trying to get liens off their house because builders took the money and ran.”

 

So what happened in Slave Lake both raises questions and provides some answers for the future of Fort McMurray residents and businesses.

Rebuilding the destroyed homes would take a couple of more years in Slave Lake after the initial cleanup. Nufloors was lucky to have had its business spared by the fire — but it was close as flames seared the brick back wall of the location. During the reconstruction “it was like Groundhog Day every day,” according to Mark Schell, “go to work, go home to sleep, go to work.”

The Nufloors business did not have the space necessary to stock enough flooring materials for the town reconstruction, so it reached out to finance a new building. Agricultural Financial Services Corp. (AFSC) of Lacombe, Alta., helped Slave Lake region businesses with financial assistance for infrastructure, says Schell. AFSC provided “zero percent interest and zero down for two years up to $2 million, so they helped us out as a company. We were able to buy a warehouse and a forklift truck.”

That was the good news for Nufloors in the wake of the fire, but Mark Schell notes that they also had to swallow a number of bad contracts from unscrupulous builders. “There’s lots of scammers out there and we got beat up over that.”

Donna Kinley, regional manager, communications and corporate liaison at the Edmonton-based Western Economic Diversification Canada development agency (WED), says that businesses in Alberta towns also have access to WED funding through Community Futures offices. The office in Fort McMurray, Community Futures Wood Buffalo, has had to be abandoned temporarily, Kinley says. When it reopens “it is a good contact on the ground.”

Kinley says that WED and the Community Futures network should have a clearer picture about resources for Fort McMurray in a few weeks.

Fort McMurray also faces the challenge of having single highway access to draw on materials, according to Terry Beauchamp, owner and president of family-run Tru-Line Construction, and father of Calvin. “We were in a really different position than Fort McMurray — it’s a dead end road with one way in and one way out. Slave Lake had High Prairie to draw from as well as Athabasca and Westlock.

“It’s going to be tougher on Fort McMurray because the volume loss is much bigger than we had.”

Residents and businesses have to be extremely careful in times of very high stress and can be vulnerable with wanting “to get back to their normal lives,” says Beauchamp. “They do rash things and make regretful decisions.

“Looking at it now I know that a lot of people signed (bad) agreements with insurance companies. They never took into account for inflation (on assessment values) and some had to remortgage their houses.” The cost of materials that are marked up for shipping to the north have to accounted for as well with insurance claims, Beauchamp cautions.

 

For the Fort McMurray businesses and homes that have been destroyed, owners will be relying both on the supply chain and skilled trades when reconstruction starts. It is here that industry will have to roll up its literal and figurative sleeves to get roofs over heads once again.

The capacity of a company such as Uniboard Canada Inc. of Laval, Que., a manufacturer of engineered wood products, will be important to any reconstruction. According to Don Raymond, Uniboard vice president of sales and marketing, “the entire industry has the capacity to help rebuild the city.”

Uniboard has an installed capacity of over 640 million square feet of raw particleboard, high-density and medium-density fiberboard, of which over 50 percent is converted into value-added thermally fused laminate and laminate flooring products.

“Our parent company, Kaycan, has a siding plant in Airdrie, Alta., that (also) has capacity,” says Raymond.

Balicki feels that “In the softwood, plywood market we see a bit of a challenge with a glut of product being consumed all of a sudden in different construction projects. That’s a challenge that I guess we’ll have to meet in the future. We’ll try to anticipate the need so those jobs can go off as smoothly as possible.”

Managers at both Tru-Line and Nufloors observed that the skilled trades shortage in Slave Lake led to dips in quality control on construction sites. Much of the problem came from builders used to erecting a handful of homes in a year suddenly contracted to complete dozens of homes.

Raymond also sees that despite industry being able to provide product in sufficient volume, he asks “are there enough skilled trades to do the work? I think that’s where the bottleneck may be.

“Let’s take cabinetry. There’s some good cabinet manufacturers in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They can put the extra capacity on to make the cabinetry.”

Even Ontario and Quebec could meet some of this demand for capacity, he acknowledges.

“The shortage is finding the people to hang and install the cabinetry.”

 

Thank you to these special Fort McMurray e-letter sponsors:

Weinig Holz-Her Canada Inc.
Elias Woodwork
Taurus Craco Machinery Inc.
Upper Canada Forest Products
Epilog Laser
Grass Canada Inc.

 

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