Wood Buffalo: Rebuilding Continues After Canada’s Costliest Natural Disaster

Back in 2016, the Horse River wildfire burned more than 5,800 square kilometres of land as it spread toward Fort McMurray in northeast Alberta. More than 2,500 dwellings were destroyed, earning the incident a reputation as Canada’s most expensive natural disaster. The Conference Board of Canada later estimated $5.4 billion would pour into the region and boost the economy as it rebuilds.

The recently formed Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation (WBEDC) continues to work to realize that potential investment. The WBEDC was formed in 2018 as an arm’s length organization from the local government, but was spun out from initiatives pursued by the Economic Development branch of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

Wood Buffalo by the Numbers

• Incorporated as a City: April 1, 1995
• Current Mayor: Don Scott
• Population * (2018): 111,687
• Population change: 2011-2016: 9.2%
• Land Area: 61,778 sq. km
• Estimated GDP Increase from 2017–2021: 5.5%
• Median Household Income: $196,285

* Includes rural service area and temporary residents working in the region for more than 30 days per year
Sources: Statistics Canada, 
Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corp., Alberta Municipal Affairs

“The WBEDC provides continued leadership to the economic growth strategy for the municipality,” says Amanda Haitas, former manager of WBEDC and current senior manager in the Planning and Development Department of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. “Their main purpose is to increase growth, innovation, prosperity, and resiliency of the regional economy.”

The organization continues to manage the Support to Small Business Programs, which were funded by the Canadian Red Cross, and include a Business Coaching Program, Keyano College Voucher Program and Group Learning Events.

“We were fortunate to be able to support Wood Buffalo in its business and economic recovery efforts both during and after the fire,” says Leann Hackman-Carty, CEO of Economic Developers Alberta. “ I am convinced that the short-term and long-term impact would have been far worse had we not been able to support the economic development group through operating the emergency hotline, providing emergency grants, and offering technical business and economic recovery support. It’s great to see how resilient their region really is.” In an effort to further consolidate its economic development efforts, the WBEDC also recently amalgamated with Fort McMurray Tourism.

“Tourism is a core driver of the regional economy and thus an essential component of the strategy, structure, and culture of the WBEDC,” says Kevin Weidlich, CEO of WBEDC. “This amalgamation will enhance Wood Buffalo’s tourism sector in areas such as brand, marketing, pursuit, sales, delivery and measurement of initiatives. We are looking forward to continue to work closely with the local tourism operators in the best interests of our region.”