Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada

Discover Fort McMurray, Alberta: A Historical and Touristic Overview

Fort McMurray, Alberta, is an urban service area nestled in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. This northeastern Alberta community is surrounded by a lush boreal forest and has played a pivotal role in the development of Canada's petroleum industry. Despite the devastating 2016 wildfire that led to widespread damage and evacuation, Fort McMurray remains a vibrant and resilient community.

The History of Fort McMurray, Alberta

Before the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century, the Cree were the dominant First Nations people in the Fort McMurray area. They were familiar with the Athabasca oil sands and used the surface deposits to waterproof their canoes. The location of Fort McMurray, west of Methye Portage, was an important junction on the fur trade route from eastern Canada to the Athabasca Country.

In 1778, the first European explorer, Peter Pond, came to the region in search of furs. Pond explored the region farther south along the Athabasca River and the Clearwater River, but chose to set up a trading post much farther north by the Athabasca River near Lake Athabasca. However, his post closed in 1788 in favour of Fort Chipewyan, now the oldest continuous settlement in Alberta.

In 1790, the explorer Alexander MacKenzie made the first recorded description of the oil sands. By that time, trading between the explorers and the Cree was already occurring at the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers. The Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company were in fierce competition in this region. Fort McMurray was established there as a Hudson's Bay Company post by 1870, named for the Chief Factor William McMurray. It continued to operate as a transportation stopover in the decades afterwards. The Alberta and Great Waterways Railway arrived in 1915 complementing existing steamboat service.

The community has played a significant role in the history of the petroleum industry in Canada. Oil exploration is known to have occurred in the early 20th century, but Fort McMurray's population remained small, no more than a few hundred people. By 1921, there was serious interest in developing a refining plant to separate the oil from the sands. Alcan Oil Company was the first outfit to begin bulk tests at Fort McMurray. The nearby community of Waterways was established to provide a southern terminus for waterborne transportation when the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway reached there in 1921.

Abasands Oil was the first company to successfully extract oil from the oil sands through hot water extraction by the 1930s, but production was very low. Fort McMurray's processing output gradually grew to over 1,100 barrels/day by World War II, and Fort McMurray was set up by the US and Canadian forces as staging ground for the Canol Project.

Fort McMurray and Waterways amalgamated as the village of McMurray (the "Fort" was dropped until 1962, when it was restored to reflect its heritage) by 1947, and became a town a year later. Fort McMurray was granted the status of new town so it could get more provincial funding. By 1966, the town's population was over 2,000.

In 1967, the Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor) plant opened and Fort McMurray's growth soon took off. More oil sands plants were opened, especially after the 1973 oil crisis and the 1979 energy crisis, when serious political tensions and conflicts in the Middle East triggered oil price spikes. The population of the town reached 6,847 by 1971 and climbed to 31,000 by 1981, a year after its incorporation as a city.

The population peaked at almost 37,000 in 1985, then declined to under 34,000 by 1989. Low oil prices since the oil price collapse in 1986 slowed the oil sands production greatly, as oil extraction from the oil sands is a very expensive process and lower world prices made this uneconomical.

On April 1, 1995, the City of Fort McMurray and Improvement District No. 143 were amalgamated to form the Municipality of Wood Buffalo. The new municipality was subsequently renamed the Regional Municipality (RM) of Wood Buffalo on August 14, 1996. As a result, Fort McMurray was no longer officially designated a city. Instead, it was designated an urban service area within a specialized municipality. The amalgamation resulted in the entire RM of Wood Buffalo being under a single government. Its municipal office is located in Fort McMurray, which accounts for the great majority of the RM's population; all but 5,000 of the RM's residents live in the Fort McMurray urban service area.

The city continued to grow for a few years even after the oil bust caused by the 2003 collapse in world oil prices. Oil price increases since 2003 made oil extraction profitable again for around a decade, until another slump in oil prices which began in December 2014 and deepened in 2015 resulted in layoffs and postponement of projects.In June 2013, heavy rains caused the Hangingstone River to flood, causing a six-day state of emergency, a bridge collapse, the closure of highways 63 and 881, and the evacuation of 150 people.

The May 2016 Wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta

On May 3, 2016, a large wildfire burning southwest of Fort McMurray resulted in the mandatory evacuation of the community. Record-breaking temperatures, reaching 32.8 °C (91 °F), low relative humidity and strong winds contributed to the fire's rapid growth in forests affected by "an unusually dry and warm winter".Upwards of 88,000 people in the community and surrounding region were evacuated. It was Canada's largest recorded wildfire evacuation in history and third-largest recorded environmental disaster evacuation behind the 1979 Mississauga train derailment and the 1950 Red River flood.About one-fifth of homes in the community were reported to be destroyed in the fire.

The April 2020 Flood in Fort McMurray, Alberta

On April 27, 2020, massive ice jams along the Athabasca River resulted in a major flood. It devastated the downtown of Fort McMurray, submerging streets and ruining businesses, cars and houses.Approximately 13,000 people from Fort McMurray and the surrounding area were evacuated.

The Geography of Fort McMurray, Alberta

Fort McMurray is 435 km (270 mi) northeast of Edmonton on Highway 63, about 60 km (37 mi) west of the Saskatchewan border, nestled in the boreal forest at the confluence of the Athabasca River, the Clearwater River, the Hangingstone River, and the Horse River. It sits at 370 m (1,210 ft) above sea level. Fort McMurray is the largest community in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. White spruce, trembling aspen, balsam poplar and white birch are the most prominent native trees in and around town. Black spruce and tamarack occur in poorly drained areas and jack pine may be seen on the driest sites. European aspen, blue spruce and sand cherry are among the exotic trees occasionally seen.

The Climate of Fort McMurray, Alberta

With severe winters except during periods of warming chinook winds, mild to warm summers and only three months which average temperature is higher than 10 °C (50 °F), Fort McMurray has a borderline subarctic climate (Köppen: Dfc), very slightly below to be considered a humid continental climate (Dfb) as May averages 9.9 °C (49.8 °F); and falls into the Natural Resources Canada (NRC) Plant Hardiness Zone 3a.The community lies at a lower elevation than most other parts of Alberta, so under the right conditions it can be a "hot spot" for Alberta.Temperatures range from an average of −17.4 °C (0.7 °F) in January, to 17.1 °C (62.8 °F) in July. The average annual precipitation is 418.6 mm (16.48 in) and falls mainly in the summer months. Average annual snowfall is 133.8 cm (52.7 in), with almost all of it falling between October and April. The highest temperature ever recorded in Fort McMurray was 40.3 °C (104.5 °F) on June 30, 2021. The lowest temperature ever recorded was −53.3 °C (−63.9 °F) on February 1, 1917 and December 31, 1933.

Neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray include Abasand Heights, Beacon Hill, Eagle Ridge, Grayling Terrace, Gregoire, Lower Townsite, Parsons Creek, Prairie Creek, Saline Creek, Stone Creek, Thickwood Heights, Dickinsfield, Timberlea, and Waterways.

Demographics of Fort McMurray, Alberta

Federal census

In the 2021 census, the Fort McMurray population centre recorded 68,002 residents living in 24,505 of its 28,670 total private dwellings, a change of 1.3% from its 2016 population of 67,123. With a land area of 52.17 km2 (20.14 sq mi), it had a population density of 1,303.5/km2 (3,376.0/sq mi) in 2021.In the 2016 census, the Fort McMurray population centre recorded 66,573 residents living in 23,937 of its 28,567 total private dwellings, a 9.9% change from its 2011 population of 60,555. With a land area of 51.79 km2 (20.00 sq mi), it had a population density of 1,285.4/km2 (3,329.3/sq mi) in 2016.

Municipal census

The permanent population of the Fort McMurray urban service area according to the RM of Wood Buffalo's 2021 municipal census is 72,917, a change of 1.2% from its 2018 municipal census permanent population of 72,056. In addition, the 2021 municipal census counted a shadow population of 3,089 non-permanent residents for a combined population of 76,006, while the 2018 municipal census counted 3,559 non-permanent residents for a combined population of 75,615.


Fort McMurray is an increasingly multicultural community. The 2021 census published by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo found roughly 6,700 people moved to the region since the 2018 census. The top four provinces that sent people were other communities in Alberta (55 per cent), followed by Newfoundland and Labrador (13 percent), and British Columbia and Ontario (nine percent each).This is a drastic change from the 2012 municipal census, which was taken when Fort McMurray and the oil sands was undergoing a huge period of economic and population growth. That census reported people from Ontario represented 27.5 percent of Canadians coming to Fort McMurray, followed by British Columbia (26.3 percent) and Newfoundland and Labrador (17.5 percent). People from elsewhere in Alberta made up 3.1 per cent of the population.


The 2021 census found 61.5 percent of residents are white, compared to 64 percent in 2016. The second largest pan ethnic group is Indigenous (10 percent), South East Asian (9.2 percent), followed by South Asian (7 percent). People identifying as Chinese, Japanese or Korean represented 1.3 percent of the population.Indigenous peoples represented 7 percent, remaining consistent from 2018. The municipal survey did not count the population of the region's First Nation reserves because they do not fall under municipal jurisdiction. First Nations people represent four percent of the municipality's population. Métis people represent 2.89 percent of the population, followed by Inuk (0.16 percent) and non-Status First Nation (0.13 percent). About 3.2 percent of people identified as African, followed by mixed ethnicities (2.44 percent), Black or African Canadian (2 percent), European (1.73 percent), Arab (1.41 percent), Hispanic or Latin American (1.08 percent), Caribbean (0.67 percent) and Oceanic (0.13 percent). 2.88 percent of respondents did not answer and 0.52 said they did not know their ethnicity.

Infrastructure in Fort McMurray, Alberta


There are several airports in the area, with Fort McMurray International Airport being the largest in northern Alberta. It is serviced by Air Canada, Air Canada Express, McMurray Aviation, Northwestern Air, WestJet and WestJet Encore, with scheduled flights to Calgary, Edmonton, Fort Chipewyan, Fort Smith, Montreal and Toronto. The airport is also serviced by various oil companies with corporate and charter flights heading north to private airstrips at oil sands operations. Flights are frequently booked to capacity because of the high transient worker population and workers who commute to Fort McMurray from other parts of Canada.

Public transit

Fort McMurray Transit operates in the community, with routes that extend to all subdivisions on the south side and subdivisions on the north side. Although the service concentrates on Fort McMurray it does operate to hamlets in the RM including Anzac, Janvier, Conklin and Fort McKay.

Highways and roads

Highway 63 is the only highway between Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Due to the industrial demands of the oilsands, Highway 63 boasts some of the highest tonnage per kilometre in Canada, and the largest and heaviest loads that trucks have ever carried. Highway 63 was fully twinned in May 2016. Highway 881 also provides access to the region from Lac La Biche.


Canadian National Railway (CN) discontinued the Muskeg Mixed (mixed train) to Fort McMurray in 1989, and there has been no passenger rail service since. CN continues to operate freight service on its Lac La Biche subdivision and stations beyond.


Canada Post identified Fort McMurray as "having a particularly high cost to serve" in January 2014, and planned to institute a surcharge of $5.00 for all parcels shipped to the area. However, the postal service retracted this decision before the rate change went into effect.

Sports and Recreation in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Local teams include the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), the Fort McMurray Giants of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), and the Keyano Huskies of the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC). The MacDonald Island Park recreation centre is located on MacDonald Island north-east of downtown. The centre contains the Wood Buffalo Regional Library, indoor water park, basketball, tennis and squash courts, rock climbing, fitness centre, indoor playground, ice rinks and public rental space. Shell Place, a connected recreational facility, and a seasonal golf course surround the centre. Fort McMurray Knights Rugby Football Club is also based in the town.