The Extraordinary Fate of Fort McMurray , Alberta

The burnt area around Ft McMurray is now over 340 sq mi. Several active fire fronts are presently at the edges of this area. The burnt area completely surrounds the core of the very isolated city, which is totally evacuated except for fire personnel. There is only one road that connects the city with the rest of the world, and at one point it was impassable, so residents had to retreat to the oil sands extraction sites deeper in the woods, and pray that another fire didn’t start nearby.


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The nearest city as big as Ft McMurray is the much larger city of Edmonton, the northernmost major city in the western hemisphere. It’s normally a five hour drive south to Edmonton. But with all the evacuation traffic, it was much longer. I have no idea how they found enough fuel. But so far there have been no fatalities! Amazing Canadian efficiency.Forest fires that far north are typically left to keep burning. These are natural forests, not managed ones. Firefighting crews are protecting the city; only a fraction of the structures have been lost. but it’s not a small fraction. I don’t think they are trying to control the wildfire as it spreads away from the city.


Image: Katelyn Bruce

This “perfect storm” of a fire combines several elements:

  • a relatively warm, dry winter;
  • an extreme hot spell (Over 90 F, which is basically unheard of at that latitude in May);
  • high winds and a spark of course;
  • an isolated and new mid-sized city that is surrounded by boreal forest

It’s tempting to see a rough justice in this all. The first two of the four ingredients, the warming-related ones, have a distinct climate disruption smell about them, even if the case is less than conclusive enough to convict.

And the town is in the business of extracting tar sands. That’s why it’s there and no comparable towns are at similar risk elsewhere. It’s not otherwise a hospitable environment for humans.

But smirking is not what we should do, as the real humans whose fates have dragged them to the frozen version of hell, only to be replaced this week by an actually hot version of hell, these are not the people who are responsible for the decision to dig up those tars which should have stayed in the ground.

While miraculously no lives are known to have been lost, in financial terms this is already the most expensive disaster in Canadian history.

Two excellent ruminations on what all this means are by the reliably excellent science writers Elizabeth Kolbert and Greg Laden.

I will note that Americans are eager to start the larger conversation while Canadians think it unseemly while the disaster is ongoing.  I speculate that many Americans see echoes of the gun control debate, where there are those who say it is insensitive to raise the issue too soon, callous to “politicize” it. But when the events occur too frequently, that starts to be a way to short-circuit the conversation altogether.

I think we should step back and let both the enormity of the risk and the spectacular efficiency of the response sink in.