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Environment

​The Perfect Wildfire: Why Fort McMurray Is Burning

The devastating fire comes only a month after Alberta cut about $15-million from its wildfire management program.

by Drew Brown
May 4 2016, 8:01pm

In the span of six hours on Tuesday, Fort McMurray, Alberta officially went from boom town to doom town as a wildfire entered the city limits and forced 80,000 people out of their homes. Many headed south along the flame-bordered Highway 63 to evacuation centres set up in Anzac, Lac La Biche, and Edmonton. More fled north to seek shelter in the work camps outside of town.

For a city that has been hit hard by the global collapse in oil prices, this is extreme injury added to insult. It's not clear when the fire will abate, or what will be left in Fort Mac when it does. So far, oil sands operations—and the residents sheltered at the camps there—do not appear to be in any immediate danger.

But as officials have stressed since Tuesday morning, this is not a fire to be taken lightly. It has already burned through 10,000 hectares and Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen warned that many parts of the city are still in danger. "This fire will look for them," he told CBC, "and it will find them, and it will try to take them."

This has been a bad spell for fires in Alberta. The province recorded twice as many fires in 2015 than its 25-year average, and fire season has been starting progressively earlier and ending progressively later for a number of years now all over North America. According to some estimates, fire season has already been extended by nearly 80 days in many parts of the American West.

Winter in Alberta this year was unseasonably warm and dry, thanks in large part to the strongest El Nino effect on record. And likewise, spring so far is feeling more like summer. We have seen wildfires starting in April, a time normally associated with flooding concerns. Fort McMurray's airport recorded only 17 mm of rain in April, and only 1 mm in the second half of the month. Temperatures spiked at 33 degrees on Tuesday and similarly high temperatures (and winds between 30 and 50 km/h) are expected today. It will cool off later this week, but no sign of precipitation until at least Monday.

Photo via Instagram user peter_pdp

It's difficult to prepare for a fire like this on a good day, and it will be harder in the future, in the wake of a nearly $15 million cut from wildfire management in last month's provincial budget. But with the weather this week, it's hard not to think about the old proverb: "man plans and God laughs."

Given the situation, firefighters have their work cut out for them. Fourteen municipalities, including Edmonton, are sending staff and resources to Fort McMurray and a number of Canadian Forces aircraft have been dispatched to help with the effort. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has also offered up water bombers, staff, and firefighters to Fort McMurray, a city with deep migratory connections to the island.

Meanwhile, British Columbia was forced to turn down Alberta's request for help because they're dealing with their own out-of-control wildfires—48 in all, with four evacuation alerts, all in the Peace region. The nearby government of the Northwest Territories is also apparently unable to send help until at least Monday.

All of Western Canada is a tinderbox right now. Expect a long and brutal summer.

Stats released by the municipality. Photo via Facebook.

Hardcore environmentalists will no doubt spend a lot of time stressing the black irony of having the Mecca of the Canadian oil industry go up in flames to a climate change-induced wildfire. But those concerns will fall on deaf ears until the immediate human tragedy at play here in northern Alberta has subsided.

The impact of all this on the oil industry is unclear. Although it's unlikely that any production facilities will be lost to the fire, the evacuation of the city is prompting many sites to scale back production, which in turn is giving a bump to the price of Canadian oil. But storage volumes are already so high that this is unlikely to give much of a long-term boost. Either way, for the foreseeable future, most of the work happening in Fort McMurray will be geared towards rebuilding the city and the lives of people who call it home.

With the fire still raging, all we can say for sure is that the mass exodus from the inferno in Fort Mac—capital of Canada's oil sands, Western hub of the Newfoundland diaspora—will be etched into the country's cultural memory for many years to come.

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