A signal of super-fires to come

May 18, 2016

Nicole Colson reports on the wildfires raging in Alberta, Canada, the heart of the tar-sands oil industry--and the grim irony that they are connected to climate change.

TENS OF thousands forced from their homes, jobs and communities. Billions of dollars in damage. Weeks, if not months, before it comes to an end.

That's the grim reality of the wildfires burning near Fort McMurray in the province of Alberta, Canada--the center of the country's tar sands oil industry.

Days after the fire began in late April, all of Fort McMurray, with a population of more than 88,000 people, was placed under a mandatory evacuation order on May 3--the largest recorded wildfire evacuation in Canada's history. Though the fire later slowed, on May 16, an additional 8,000 people were evacuated from tar sands work camps north of Fort McMurray that had previously been largely spared, as the fire once again intensified.

Though no one was injured in the evacuation, traffic stretched for hours, and some people ran out of gas on the road as gas stations along the route were drained. Terrifying video showed the fast-moving fire jumping the highway as people attempted to flee.

Although wildfires are common in the area, this one became noteworthy for its intensity and the speed with which it grew--swelling from some 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) to more than 220,000 hectares (544,000 acres) over three days at the beginning of May. It has since engulfed at least 702,000 acres. At least 10 percent of Fort McMurray--some 2,400 structures--has burned, and it could be weeks, if not longer, before residents are able to return.

The tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada
The tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada

In the meantime, thousands of residents are without homes and jobs--including those who work in the tar sands oil industry, after various producers in the area temporarily cut production because of the proximity of the fire. With the third-largest known reserves of oil in the world behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the Fort McMurray region lives and breathes oil--so the impact of the fire has been huge.

"My house and everything I own is gone," Mike Marchand, a crane operator for Suncor Energy, told Bloomberg News, after he evacuated with his family when the trailer park where he lives went up in flames.

One reporter surveying a section of Fort McMurray called Beacon Hill said there was almost nothing left. "It's just blocks and blocks of soot, basically," she said.

A two-year decline in oil prices had left workers in the area reeling already, with more than 40,000 energy jobs lost in Canada since 2014. Now the negative economic consequences of the fire will add to the crisis for the Canadian economy. As the New York Times reported:

Oil companies could take weeks or months to get fully up and running, depriving the province of Alberta of royalty payments. And rebuilding costs will add to the strain on a national government that had only recently, and perhaps not fully, recovered from a mild recession. Ultimately, the financial fallout from the fire could sap what little growth Canada was expected to eke out in the latest quarter.

Despite the fire's impact, however, some workers feel they have no option but to stay in the area. "It's a day-by-day thing right now, and that's all I can do," Suncor energy worker Lucy Fitzgerald told CBC News. "It's either that or go home and stay home, and I can't afford to do that right now."

But remaining poses risks of its own. According to CBC News, Alberta uses a scale of one to 10 to measure air quality. On the morning of May 16, air quality in the Fort McMurray area was an off-the-charts 38.

CONDITIONS WERE ripe for a high-intensity and fast-spreading fire.

According to reports, it was fueled by unseasonably high temperatures, high winds and an unusually warm winter. As the New Yorker noted, over the winter, "[p]recipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; [in early May], the thermometer hit 90, which is about 30 degrees higher than the region's normal May maximum."

According to regional fire chief Darby Allen, "I've never seen anything like this...I spoke to my colleagues from forestry [about] many of the fire conditions and the way the fire behaved, no one had ever seen anything like this. This fire is rewriting the book, the way this thing happened, the way it traveled...so they're writing their formulas on the way fires behave based on this fire."

The wildfire released such massive amounts of energy that it even created its own weather, including lightning strikes, Britain's Guardian reported. "Fires producing lightning isn't unheard of," University of Alberta scientist Mike Flannigan told the Guardian. "But this one generated lightning and then generated new fire starts. That's the first time I've heard this."

There is a grim irony about the fire striking in Fort McMurray, a "boomtown" at the heart of Canada's multibillion-dollar tar sands industry, one of the most carbon-intensive and environmentally damaging forms of energy production and a driver of the kind of climate change that scientists believe caused this fire to spread more quickly. At one point, the wildfire caused the shutdown of more than 1 million barrels a day in oil production.

Energy companies have been scrambling to restart or maintain operations even as the fire continues to burn. The May 16 evacuation order was another setback for the large producers in the region--and an even bigger one for struggling workers.

But as devastating as the Fort McMurray fire is, it may be a sign of things to come, as climate change creates the conditions for more and more intense "super-fires."

ACCORDING TO NASA, globally, this April was the hottest on record and the seventh month in a row to break global temperature averages, leaving little doubt that 2016 will be the hottest year ever.

Hotter temperatures and drought have produced "fire seasons" of increasing length and severity in several parts of the globe, including portions of the U.S. As the New Yorker reported:

Last year, wildfires consumed 10 million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade. In some areas, "we now have year-round fire seasons," Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, [said].

"You can say it couldn't get worse," Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, "Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970." Over the past three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service's scientists project that it's likely to "double again by midcentury."

Globally, according to a study by Mark Cochrane, a professor of fire ecology at South Dakota State University, the fire season around the planet increased nearly 19 percent from 1979 to 2013. Cochrane told the Associated Press that while such blazes were increasing steadily in the late 1990s and early 2000s, today, "we've suddenly been hit with lots of these large fires we can't control."

Natural phenomena like weather patterns also play a role, but the evidence that climate change is a big contributing factor is undeniable. As Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver, a Green party legislator in the British Columbia parliament, told the Associated Press about the Fort McMurray fire, "This is absolutely a harbinger of things to come."

It's important to recognize that the tar sands workers struggling to make a living in Alberta are not driving this process. The real cause is the economic system that prioritizes environmentally devastating practices like tar sands drilling at the expense of the environment and human needs.

Some are now saying that it's not the "right time" to raise the link between tar sands oil production and the Fort McMurray fire, because so many ordinary people are suffering. But it's crucial that we don't ignore the lessons--even as politicians and the oil industry attempt to push them aside.

As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stated in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada's Les Coulisses du Pouvoir:

I think there are a lot of factors in this situation and we are very, very sad and we think of the people of Alberta. But we must talk about the causes and for me, climate change--extreme weather events--is the face of this problem...[F]or me, it's not about the economy, it's not about industry, it's an issue about the environment.

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