Fort McMurray, after the fire
The devastation caused by the Fort McMurray blaze represents a massive business opportunity for contractors, cleanup crews and restoration workers.
Inside the surreal and competitive race to rebuild after a natural disaster
Mike Feldstein rode shotgun in his Ford F-150 pickup, barrelling from one cleanup job to another in Fort McMurray’s north end. At one client’s house, a throng of stuffed animals, reeking of smoke, polluted a child’s room (clothes driers, furnaces and teddy bears, as it turns out, all retain the smell of wildfire). Feldstein pressed a stuffed puppy to his nose, pronounced the situation improved, but directed his crew to perform another round of ozone treatment for good measure. In a bathroom down the hall, a member of a team of Filipino cleaners scrubbed a shower stall using three limbs simultaneously—two hands and a foot to press a rag against the enamel.
At a second north-end site later that day, in a home that miraculously survived despite backing onto a section of the fire-razed city, another crew member hired by Feldstein swabbed windows that overlook the wasteland—a bone-white ash pit with roads divvying up the nothingness. On the kitchen counter, in a vase-like aquarium, a blue fish that had lived through weeks of foodless evacuation lazily swam in circles.
Welcome to the business of cleaning up a town laid to waste by forest fire, a surreal, risky and potentially profitable endeavour for experienced workers. Feldstein, 26, targets homes that survived the May wildfire pretty much unscathed save for the smell of smoke. They need little more than a deodorizing, an external pressure-washing and a thorough indoor scrub. The vast majority of residences, in other words. His core team, all new arrivals from the Toronto area, kept getting lost between gigs. Feldstein called up a map of Fort McMurray on his smartphone, and noted how the roads recalled the circularity of a Nintendo Super Mario Kart game. Luckily, his childhood friend, Elliot Wajchendler, was driving that day, and had finally gotten the hang of performing flawless U-turns while also hauling a 16-foot trailer behind him. He’d actually driven the pickup all the way from Toronto to join the team.
Occasionally, it became awkward when prospective clients asked where they were from. Today in Fort McMurray, every vehicle seems to carry an #albertastrong bumper sticker, and there’s a mantra-like insistence on hiring locally. Wajchendler, a soft-spoken charmer with a young man’s beard and a boxer’s nose, liked to say he was from Edmonton.
He wasn’t fibbing, exactly. He was just stretching the truth: The crew’s formation had indeed involved a stopover in Edmonton. For Feldstein, the road to fire-ravaged Fort McMurray stretched all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, where he’d driven from Toronto to watch a Raptors game on May 17. The next day, heading north on the highway, Feldstein got word that a certification course in fire restoration, geared to the upcoming clean up in Fort Mac, was starting in Edmonton the very next day. He didn’t actually need the certification—he owns Rapid Group Inc., a restoration company based in Markham, Ont., specializing in mould removal—but saw the course as a crucial networking exercise. He scrambled to book his flight from the road, barely making it to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in time. He carried no luggage.
Before long, he formed a new division of his company, dubbed it Alberta Fire Restoration, and began hiring his fellow participants from the certification course. For Feldstein, a night in Cleveland had turned into a weeks-long business trip to a disaster zone more than 2,500 kilometres from home.
Shawn Chaulk didn’t have as far to travel, but his journey started with an escape. A general contractor who’s lived in Fort McMurray for 36 years, Chaulk was with a client on the afternoon of May 3 when his mobile started ringing—again and again. It was his wife, Tanya, who frantically told him the wildfire had taken a sudden swing toward their neighbourhood. Chaulk, 49, made it back to his sprawling home west of the downtown core as the fire marched nearer. Tanya instructed their three children, who range in age from three to 11, to pack their most cherished possessions, giving each a suitcase. Chaulk, meanwhile, had his own treasures to look after.
Joined now by his project manager, Marc Taplin, a giant of a man with tattoos up and down his arms, Chaulk rushed into his home office, tossing two open hockey bags onto the floor. The two men began packing the most valuable items in Chaulk’s collection of Wayne Gretzky memorabilia, at one time acknowledged as the world’s largest. Chaulk ripped jerseys from the display cases lining one wall of the room and threw them at Taplin, who thrust them into the bags. Chaulk didn’t save these things for sentimental reasons. He was convinced he was about to lose his home; the jerseys would mean ready cash in the event of a rebuild.
As he and Tanya ushered the kids into his pickup, they saw a wall of fire raging at the end of their street. Only then did Chaulk notice the truck was running on empty, the gas light blinking. He rushed from the pickup and siphoned fuel from his lawn mower. Escape meant driving toward the flames—the dream house Chaulk had built two years prior now in the rearview mirror.
That fire would displace some 90,000 people and grow to cover nearly 6,000 sq. km. It could end up as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history—and possibly the most lucrative, for those equipped to handle the cleanup and reconstruction. Total damages are estimated at between $4 billion and $9 billion, and the Conference Board of Canada says the rebuild could add $1.3 billion to Alberta’s economy next year.
Fuelling much of the work will be an influx of cash stemming from an estimated $4.6 billion in insurance industry losses. That sort of money is already drawing a motley bunch seeking to make a quick buck—but that’s long been true of Fort Mac, an oil boom town that attracted outsiders from across Canada for years, until crude prices began slipping in 2013. Chaulk and Feldstein could not be more different from one another, yet both men demonstrate how the push to clean up and rebuild this city is at once a national project, a chance to make some money, and a test of the business and logistical acumen of those actually dealing with the mess.
Take Feldstein, an online marketing whiz who fell into restoration work. He says the various divisions of his company pull in around $2 million a year. He’s a born entrepreneur. As a teen, he shipped knock-off Lacoste T-shirts to Toronto from China, and made thousands in just months selling them to classmates. Now he is gambling on the cleanup bonanza in the hopes of generating enough capital to finance his first high-tech startup. (He describes it as a TripAdvisor for people seeking to find a good lawyer.)
In Fort Mac, Feldstein leads his team with the confidence of a young man who’s done this before and won. His first hands-on foray into catastrophe-response work came when he flew into Calgary after the city flooded in June 2013, arriving with nothing but a backpack. “I went from zero guys to 55 in a week,” he says.
Soon, he’d won a series of contracts, including one to drain a major downtown Calgary hotel’s flooded underground parkade. According to Feldstein’s account, he told the hotel’s building manager he could do the job cheaper than his competitors, who were hauling floodwater away with vacuum trucks—an expensive, inefficient option. Feldstein went online and sourced a pump in Iowa used mainly on pig farms that could clear hundreds of gallons of water a minute, and paid to fly it in. At the same time, he tapped an Alberta company to make him a hose long enough to reach the depths of the parkade. He was 23.
Feldstein says his lawyer had to lean on the insurance company before he could collect on the hotel job, and that it took him more than a year of negotiation to secure his money. It was worth it. “I made $400,000 in two months,” he says. Fort McMurray, where he hopes to clean a hundred houses, could be as profitable. But he is alive to the pitfalls of work in a disaster zone.
Is it a gamble?
“Big time,” Feldstein says. “A calculated bet. I think it’s a good bet.”
Though well established in Fort McMurray, Chaulk sees the risks of the wildfire boom in similar terms. His Stratford Contracting Ltd. is one of this city’s largest residential contractors, with annual revenues of between $3 million and $10 million, much of it from insurance work. Stratford has already provided simple, hard-surface wipe-downs, sucked out and replaced smoke-damaged insulation, and ripped up and rebuilt kitchens and basements. Chaulk figures he could put up as many as 100 homes in the next three years. “I could probably do more work in the next two years than I’ve done in the past 17,” says Chaulk, ballparking potential revenues of $60 million in that time frame. That volume of work could threaten to upend his status as a semi-retiree. “I’m usually still in my underwear at this hour,” he says—at 9:30 a.m.
The more serious danger for both Feldstein and Chaulk is the lag between the time the work is completed and when insurance companies actually pay. “A storm like this could put you in a million-dollars-worth of accounts receivables in a month,” Chaulk says. The trick for both men will be in not spending themselves into oblivion in the interim by taking on too much work—for some, not a temptation easy to resist. “A lot of people,” Chaulk says, “are going to go broke trying to get rich.”
Chaulk’s own home survived, but the wildfire razed 2,400 buildings, including the houses where he grew up and where he and Tanya had their first child. A small man with a trim goatee, Chaulk has a tattoo of a fiery phoenix on his left arm, done after his third child was born prematurely and nearly died. He and Tanya named the boy Phoenix to remember the miracle of his survival and later good health. It is not lost on Chaulk that the flames on his flesh carry a new meaning now. His roots are here, and they make the job of rebuilding personal.
Two weeks after landing in Edmonton, with the Fort McMurray evacuation order still in effect, Feldstein moved his operations as close to the city as he could: a cottage on Skeleton Lake, outside Boyle, Alta. It was still 300 km south of the disaster, and too remote. “We were an hour and a half away from the closest Tim Hortons, which I didn’t think was possible in Canada,” he says. A handful of friends from Toronto had now begun flying to Alberta to join him.
The team set up a makeshift office at a nearby Subway sandwich outlet, using Wi-Fi to build an Alberta Fire Restoration profile on Facebook (“We will ensure that your property will be thoroughly environmentally cleansed and deodorized to give you peace of mind”) and to buy ads on Google. Subway kicked them out when they stayed all day. They moved to the library.
After the evacuation order was lifted, five crew members spent their first night in Fort McMurray camped out in a single hotel room. They ate at free barbecues set up by ATCO Ltd., the Alberta utility, and rented seven vehicles to get around the city. Feldstein spent $5,500 to fly 50 of his Novatek air scrubbers and several ozone generators to Edmonton from Toronto (the Fort McMurray airport remained closed). He made the four-and-a-half-hour drive back to Edmonton, bought the 16-foot trailer for $6,500 and, when his shipment arrived, packed it with his team “like Tetris,” says Wajchendler. “As many scrubbies as we could get in.”
They hopped from hotel to hotel as availability dictated. Eventually, Feldstein set up a headquarters in one of two suites he secured in a downtown hotel, at an overall cost of nearly $2,000 a week. When they weren’t working, they slept in the rooms dorm-style. Feldstein scoured Facebook looking for local Fort McMurray cleaning crews—mainly South Asians and Filipinos long based in the city—and hired them with the promise of plentiful work and daily payment. They ordered 40 smart-looking black T-shirts and red polos with the company insignia on the front and #FORTMACSTRONG on the back, at $22 a piece. They distributed the shirts among their new associates each morning and, because they constantly rotated through cleaning crews, made sure to collect the shirts again at night. A believer in media exposure, Feldstein took time out to speak with the Canadian Press about these new hires, placing emphasis on the fact they lived in town: “Their current employment is burned down or closed or inoperable,” he said. “They’re rebuilding their community.”
Early on, Feldstein saw that Fort McMurray residents were heavy Facebook users, and he built a social media presence for Alberta Fire Restoration. “Fort Mac’s a very interesting place because it doesn’t have a very traditional media system,” he says. “Facebook is the media.” There is one thinly staffed Postmedia daily, Fort McMurray Today, and no all-news radio; the classic-hits format 100.5 Cruz FM intersperses community updates with nuggets like “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco.
Feldstein’s insight paid off. On June 3, one woman updated her Facebook profile: “Our house was deemed uninhabitable by Alberta fire restoration,” she wrote. “We were told that there is more than likely some kind of acid on the walls from the smoke and hydrocarbons that are odorless and could be cancer causing...so many potential dangers that are odorless and people think their houses are fine.” She added: “Thank you Alberta fire restoration for taking care of us!”
That post has been shared 484 times, and Feldstein says it generated a third of the company’s work. They began getting as many as 300 inquiries a day. “I could not go to Tim Hortons in my shirt,” he boasts. “I’d be mobbed.”
They hit dozens of houses in the following weeks—cleaning out ducts, furnaces, air conditioners and HVAC systems, steam-cleaning carpets, upholstery and mattresses. Where the adjuster approved, they emptied homes of clothes and had them dry cleaned. They’re now doing bigger jobs, too: installing new insulation in 25 attics, and at one home replacing the roof and siding.
But even the small gigs represent a payout of about $13,000 from insurance providers. Feldstein and his crew only have to convince prospective clients to go with them rather than the preferred vendors insurance companies seek to push on policyholders. They do this by offering quick service, and by presenting insurance companies as more worried about their own bottom lines than the well-being of clients. “We work for you—not the insurance company,” is the line he pushes. Often, all Feldstein and his crew really have to do is inform residents that they aren’t obliged to go with the preferred vendors at all. “The ‘preferreds’ make our job easier,” Feldstein told one customer, frustrated after his provider offered to pay him to clean his own house—despite the presence of smoke damage that he worried might endanger his children.
If Feldstein’s past experience is any guide, he’ll have to pursue insurance companies for payment in some cases. “Thank God my sister owns a law firm,” he says.
By mid-June, Chaulk was receiving 250 inquiries a day, many from people he knew: an old girlfriend, his bookkeeper, the plumbers, cabinetmakers and other tradespeople who in better times he’d be hiring, not the other way around. He could barely keep up with the demand as he went from house to house (Chaulk likes to do inspections himself). Stratford had become a one-stop shop—handling all the big jobs Feldstein didn’t want, but doing smaller jobs, too.
Chaulk was depending heavily on his traditional partners to handle all the work. “I’m adamant about hiring local,” he says. “My mandate is to do as much work as I can without putting myself in the grave and supporting as many locals and my people as I can.” That commitment means delays. “What do you do?” he asks. “There’s 30,000 homes to clean and enough cleaners to do 50 a day.”
He farmed out as much as he could, especially the dirty jobs related to the flooding and sewage backups that had plagued the city once the fire receded. While flushing out lines to kick the city’s water system back into gear, for example, the municipality had inadvertently caused raw sewage to spew from toilets and fill sinks and washing machines at homes across town. Elsewhere, power outages had disabled basement sump pumps, allowing water to collect and creating monstrous mould outbreaks—fungal furs that could grow six inches deep. In one basement, the stuff had crawled its way up a giant TV screen and sprouted from the alphabet of a computer keyboard. In such environments, workers don Tyvek suits and breathe through respirators.
There is no predicting the calls Chaulk might get. A woman wanted her wedding dress salvaged from mould. Another client’s hunting rifles, dredged up from a basement flood, had sprouted colonies of fungi; he’d stowed them in an unlocked garage. (Chaulk advised him to call the RCMP, the protocol in such cases.) He turned away inquiries from others looking to turn an insurance claim into a reno: “I can’t in good conscience give you a new kitchen when I have friends with no kitchen,” he’d say.
At one home, he shimmied up a ladder and found half its roof pristine, the other blasted. A two-metre strip of flashing, torn from the eaves, laid twisted on the lawn. “Water bomber,” said Chaulk—the aircrafts that had fought the fire from the skies. Later that afternoon, he arrived at a house that stood two doors from a massive crater— like something out of Fallujah—created when a gas leak caused a house to explode after the fire. Six of the homes around the epicentre were damaged. But while the houses on either side had notices posted to their doors indicating they were off limits, this middle one appeared magically sound; just the windows had been blown out.
The insurance company arranged for a structural engineer to fly up from Edmonton and, accompanied by an adjuster, check the place out. The homeowner wanted Chaulk—who was not the original builder—to referee. In a safety vest, equipped with a pen light, the engineer studied the place, noting with morbid fascination how it had survived the explosion despite frequent departures from code—deviations he said did not make sense.
“You’ll see a lot of ‘doesn’t-make-sense’ as you go around,” laughed Chaulk. The home had been built at the height of a Fort McMurray boom, when overworked contractors verily threw such buildings up, too busy for rules.
The engineer appeared ready to sign off on the house. He looked to Chaulk, almost as if for approval.
“You’re the man with the beaver,” Chaulk said in reply to that look.
It was a reference to the stamp of approval Alberta’s professional engineers knock out on blueprints—the insignia of a beaver, that master builder of the wilderness. It is the lingo of experience.
At most every home Feldstein’s team got to, they’d pull up beside a truck from a competing cleaning company working in the adjacent home. The black and red Alberta Fire Restoration T-shirts clashed with a colourful kaleidoscope of those from rival companies, a scene from a soccer summit. There was PuroClean—the Paramedics of Property Damage!—with white-clad staff, and ProStar Cleaning & Restoration, from Calgary, in brash yellow. Feldstein especially liked to point out the trucks belonging to ServiceMaster Restore, a multinational company that received bad press after workers with one of its subcontractors in Fort Mac went to the news media with health and safety concerns. Feldstein scoffed at these big companies, calling them inefficient, overstaffed, unwieldy.
When not tracking his rivals, Feldstein tracked Alberta Fire Restoration’s clients using Podio, a customizable, cloud-based, mobile-ready software capable of displaying in real time the ever-shifting demands of customers (and of Canadian Business reporters). The crew boasted of their paperless billing, got calls through Ruby Receptionists, a virtual service based in Portland, Ore., and kept abreast of projects via cloud-based spreadsheet apps. Such software helped especially when someone had a charged smartphone on hand. This wasn’t always the case. Juiced-up phones were also required for the teams to power up Google Maps and find their way around—also occasionally a tall order.
If the crews made some wrong turns, it was only natural: They worked 18-hour days and grabbed power naps in passenger seats when they could. Otherwise they operated on adrenaline. They ate few greens, and celebrated when Mucho Burrito re-opened around the corner from the hotel. From time to time, they cooked; one client, a hunter, even gave them five pounds of deer meat. They may have been cleaning homes for clients, but they weren’t cleaning up after themselves. Their hotel rooms were a disaster. “Like a frat house!” Feldstein said, barring a reporter who wanted a peek at mission control.
Eventually, Feldstein broke down, signed a year-long lease and rented a townhouse. He and the guys all have local addresses now, local gym memberships, and were looking to hire four local staffers. Initially committing to staying 10 weeks here, they have now vowed to remain for the rebuild phase. They might be from Toronto, but that grit and moxie is all Alberta.
Toward the end of the day, Chaulk parked alongside another job in the north end of town. It was a home first responders had demolished to create a firebreak and save the rest of the neighbourhood. Across the street, the remains of an SUV lay twisted up in what used to be someone’s driveway, similarly untouched by fire, but apparently run over by a much larger vehicle. The collapsed house looked just as beaten up as that SUV, and yet there was something clean about it—clean and un-combusted.
Despite the devastation around him, Chaulk was doing well. His house still stood, the display cases in his home office were full of hockey jerseys again, and he was picking up big contracts. One, from an insurance adjuster who handled a large property management firm in Edmonton, was a contract to clean 408 units around town—representing upward of $2 million. Semi-retirement wasn’t supposed to be this good.
Still, there was something about this demolished house. The homeowner had hired Stratford to sift through the rubble and salvage whatever keepsakes they could find in the debris. It would be hand done, Chaulk explained, by men wearing gloves: a giant game of pick-up sticks, bit by bit, with the family looking on. That was more than just work.