As the temperature rises, so will the risk – some thoughts on the Fort Mac Wildfire, one year ago today

Posted on May 03, 2017, 1:08 am
6 mins

PHOTOS: Cars full of refugees from the Fort McMurray Wildfire flee the flames on May 3, 2016. (Wikipedia) Below: Premier Rachel Notley, then Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee, and Opposition leader Brian Jean.

Today is the anniversary of the moment one year ago when the Fort McMurray Wildfire tore through the city limits and it became apparent the oilsands city would have to be evacuated.

This was at once a terrible moment and a great moment in Alberta history: a time of enormous stress and loss to which Albertans responded with generosity, courage, wit and skill. For a few days at least, Albertans, who can be a fractious bunch, ignored their differences to deal with the crisis of 90,000 refugees from the flames.

Coming when it did, the fire cast a pall – literal and metaphorical – over the Alberta NDP Government’s plans for a celebration of its unexpected victory at the polls one year before in the May 5, 2015, general election.

Obviously, there was no time for such fripperies in the crisis created by the massive fire moving into the city of Fort McMurray, where it eventually would destroy about 2,400 structures, roughly 15 per cent of the city’s buildings. Given the severity of the fires, even at about $10 billion it was probably lucky the losses weren’t greater.  Only about $3.5 billion of the losses were insured, making this the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, at least as far as insurance companies were concerned.

For the most part, at the legislative level in particular, political differences were set aside in the initial period after the fire as Albertans coped together with the magnitude of the disaster. The premier, Rachel Notley, and the Opposition leader, Brian Jean, who was also a resident of Fort Mac, both conducted themselves with grace.

But there were political consequences.

One was that it is hard to deny that after a rocky start, Premier Notley’s government responded with real skill. It is certainly remarkable that so much property destruction was accompanied by so little human loss, but that is probably not an accomplishment for which Ms. Notley’s government, in power not quite a year, could take credit beyond conserving the public services that made it possible.

Still, the aftermath was handled with remarkable skill, and the criticism of the government in all but the shrillest and most conspiracy-minded opposition quarters was muted, even generous. Danielle Larivee, the Registered Nurse who was then the government’s municipal affairs minister, performed with particular distinction. Having earned a reputation as a problem-solver, in January this year she took over the children’s services portfolio, which has been plagued by trouble for years.

If the government does not succeed in the next general election, expected to take place in 2019, it will not be because of its performance in responding to the Fort Mac Fire.

One other consequence – not a particularly positive one, it is said here – was the consensus that was immediately reached in Alberta not only not to blame the fire on the conditions of global warming, or to draw connections between the economic drivers of the community and the occupations of many of its residents that suffered and climate change, but not to talk about it at all.

The time has come for that to stop – although there are political forces and the right and left alike who would very much prefer that discussion to remain verboten.

It’s not just Fort McMurray, of course, although that city’s connection with the oilsands is unique in Canada, but similar devastating fires have struck in recent years in Slave Lake, Alberta, Kelowna, British Columbia, La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and Timmins, Ontario. Whether it’s a matter of global climate change, bad municipal planning practices, underfunding of fire fighting resources or some combination, as seems likely, we need to talk about it.

The experts believe this will continue to happen, and likely get worse – the real experts, that is, the ones who study science, not political science, and not the shills in various well-known Astro-Turf groups.

“Natural Resources Canada says climate change is expected to result in more frequent forest fires that have severe consequences,” the Canadian Press reported on Monday. “The area burned could double by the end of the century compared with recent decades.”

“It is going to happen again,” U of A wildfire professor Mike Flanagan told CP. “It is not a fluke.”

Ignoring it as a policy, as some political parties want to do – the Alberta NDP notably not among them – is obviously not the answer.

As the temperature rises, so will the risk – political and physical.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

12 Comments to: As the temperature rises, so will the risk – some thoughts on the Fort Mac Wildfire, one year ago today

  1. Sam Gunsch

    May 3rd, 2017

    re: ‘The experts believe this will continue to happen, and likely get worse – the real experts, that is, the ones who study science, not political science, and not the shills in various well-known Astro-Turf groups.’

    FWIW … yeah, about those expert warnings … Environment Canada’s mid-1990’s climate change maps for Canada of where the most warming could be expected, in one model, showed one of the very hottest spots was expected to be the area just northeast of Fort McMurray and south of Wood Buffalo National Park inside AB. Projections are rarely that accurate, but tragically in this case, they were.

    And then AB PC gov’t’s failure to implement the Fire Smart protection program compounded the danger of course.

    Ignore evidence, fail to invest in preventative measures, seems a common pattern among typical contemporary conservative political leadership. Just keep digging.

    I saw those climate maps only because the Canada’s Sierra Club toured major cities including Edmonton highlighting the projected impacts of climate change on Canada. It was Sierra Club’s campaign warning against spurring massive growth of Canada’s GHG’s from expanding tarsands mining via the huge federal tax reductions for the industry that Anne McLelland was promoting as federal Natural Resources Minister in Chretien’s Liberals.

    Civil servants have done their duty and warned about the impacts of climate change for decades. Unfortunately the economic power of the fossil industry captured our governments, and industry ran a successful decades long campaign to undermine change to a renewable energy system. And the citizenry pays the price.

    I almost went down to Environment Canada libraries to attempt to find those climate maps. But that’s a long time ago… and they likely got dumped anyways, during the Harper regime’s trashing of repositories of Canada’s scientific data.

    Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    May 3rd, 2017

    You are so correct, David.

    My thinking is that it doesn’t even matter whether it was climate change or not that caused this particular fire. What is essential, however, is that the fire is an example of what climate change can do. Scientists have been giving us this warning for a generation.

    Jason Kenney and his ilk love to go on and on about how the consequence of reducing our carbon footprint will destroy the economy, and that we shouldn’t take action until the issue is absolutely settled. The fire, and the 2013 flood in Calgary, serve as very unfortunate wake-up calls that there are also consequences to ignoring climate change.

    I don’t imagine many of the people escaping the flames last year were worried about the economy. When the risk is this great, do we need to wait until the issue is settled before we take action?

    Reply
  3. Ron

    May 3rd, 2017

    The boreal forest cannot survive climate change. The wild fires are simply an early stage of the adaption process.

    Reply
    • Val

      May 3rd, 2017

      let me guess – there never before boreal forest has been catch on fire and Fort Mac is first sign of coming trouble because there are growing extraction of oil and natural gas at that location, right?

      b.t.w. nothing can survive at all. can you believe not further than just 2 billion years ago Sun was working only at 75% of present capacity and in next close future (2 billion or possible even less) Sun will burn out on the Earth everything, before expanding into red giant and absorb the Earth.

      Reply
      • Death and Gravity

        May 4th, 2017

        Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain.
        They would do no better against willfully blindness, or smart-alec trollery.

        Reply
  4. David

    May 3rd, 2017

    The fires in Fort McMurray, the devastating flood in Calgary and flooding in other places like New Orleans all are to some degree related to climate change.

    Our governments have to take into account that climate change is not something that is predicted for the distant future, but is something already happening now. We can not predict exactly when and where disasters will happen, but we should realize they will happen more often and we need to be better prepared to deal with and mitigate them. The 1 in 100 year floods and other disasters are occurring more often and the frequency will increase as climate change continues.

    There are many practical things we can do to improve infrastructure (more access routes to Fort McMurray, more floodways and resevoirs around Calgary, bigger fire breaks, etc..) to mitigate or prevent damage and we also need to put more resources into emergency preparedness. We have already had recent disasters in Chisolm, Slave Lake, Calgary and Fort McMurray in recent years and we can expect events like this will happen again, if not in the same communities then in other communities in Alberta’s boreal forest or flood prone areas.

    Lastly, while we are doing all this, we also have to deal with the underlying problem of climate change which is causing all of this, as ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

    Reply
    • Val

      May 3rd, 2017

      given your list of past and future disasters affiliated with climate change, the only solution to efficiently fight it, for governments of all types and stripes is to tax own citizens to level, when they will be forced to move to live in caves and supply itself by hunting.

      Reply
      • Bob Raynard

        May 4th, 2017

        Following your precedent of extremist arguement, val, a cave would sound pretty good to somebody trapped in their burning house.

        Reply
  5. Farmer B

    May 3rd, 2017

    I appreciate your comment on the possibility of bad municipal planning and under funding of fire fighting resources as possible influences in the scope of these fires. If you put a large city in the middle of a forest this is bound to happen. The Fort McMurray Fire was a terrible tragedy. Blaming it on global warming is in my mind very simplistic. I am curious though, my parents lived through the Dirty Thirties, a period of extended dryness and hardship. Was this caused by climate change as well? Or was it just a extended weather cycle?

    Reply
  6. May 3rd, 2017

    So, are we pro pipelines or not?

    Reply
  7. Val Jobson

    May 3rd, 2017

    Fires in the boreal forest are natural; trees such as lodgepole pines are adapted to reseed burned areas. The more we build homes in the forest, the more danger from fires. So yes, we need to prepare more.

    The increase in acreage burned does suggest that climate change is affecting the frequency or the extent of fires. The unusual heat a year ago may have been due to climate change plus the El Nino; so climate change may have been one factor producing that fire, along with the buildup of burnable materials and the actual ignition. But that would be difficult to prove.

    The thing is that climate change probably affects any extreme event; it may not be the one cause or the main cause of any event, but it could make any event more extreme: bigger fires, bigger floods, etc.

    Reply

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