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

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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.

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Categories Alberta Politics