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Wildfire-Ravaged Fort McMurray Was Already Staggering From Oil Bust

Fort McMurray, the Canadian oil town engulfed by wildfires, was already crippled by a collapse in crude prices before flames raced into the once-booming city, burning hundreds of homes to the ground and chasing residents into bush camps for safety.

Dubbed "Fort McMoney" when its oil sands industry was flourishing and residents were among the wealthiest in Canada, Fort McMurray had been hemorrhaging workers and wealth for 18 months before fires forced the evacuation of the entire city's 80,000 residents.

"Fort McMurray was really the ground zero of all that was happening related to oil and gas," said Sandeep Agrawal, a professor of urban studies and regional planning at the University of Alberta. "When this bust happened, it was catastrophic in many ways."

Image: Fort McMurray evacuees in Edmonton
Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfire leave the Expo Centre after picking up supplies Wednesday in Edmonton, Alberta. Dan Riedlhuber / Reuters

Surrounded by thick boreal forest and vast oil sands deposits, hundreds of miles from the nearest major city, Fort McMurray was deeply reliant on a single commodity.

Its population ballooned to more than 120,000 in 2015, sparking housing shortages and skyrocketing prices, before a 70 percent drop in oil prices last year slammed the door on growth, prompting the exodus of almost a third of its inhabitants.

"Stores were closing. Small businesses were closing. A year or two ago, you could not get a seat in the restaurants, but the buying power was not there anymore," said Ria Dickason, a 14-year resident who fled the fires Tuesday.

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"Everyone was concerned about it, because it impacted every single person," she said. "It doesn't matter what type of work you do, because lots and lots and lots of people lost their jobs."

Real estate websites are littered with listings for sprawling Fort McMurray homes with asking prices approaching $1 million (about $750,000 U.S.) — double Canada's average home price — in neighborhoods that are now charred and smoldering amid Alberta's largest-ever evacuation for a fire.

While oil sands facilities aren't in the fire's path, at least four companies have curbed activities to allow workers and others to get to safety. It was unclear what percentage of production had been affected by the fire.

PHOTOS: Entire City Flees Raging Wildfire in Canada

"While the full extent of the damage isn't yet known, we certainly do know that for those who have been affected, this fire is absolutely devastating," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa. "It's a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine."