Fort McMurray’s fire, ski towns, and how we’re all in this together
by Allen Best
In early October 2011, when I visited Fort McMurray as part of a tour of what officials pointedly called the Athabascan oil sands, geraniums were still blooming at the local airport. I thought it odd to have flowers blossoming yet at a location so far north and in a place with a reputation for such deep mid-winter cold.
Although low in elevation for Alberta at 260 meters (850 feet), Fort McMurray has a climate bordering on the subarctic, says Wikipedia. January temperatures average only -17.4 degrees C (0.7 degrees F)
But Alberta this past winter was mild and dry and April was exceptionally warm. The fire broke out on May 1 and just two days later, as whole subdivisions in Fort McMurray erupted into flames, a temperature of 32.7 degrees C (almost 91 degrees F) was recorded.
About five hours south of the fire, Banff was also unusually warm, too, although not nearly as much: 24.3 degrees C (74 degrees F), breaking a 124-year-old record.
This warming fits in with broad trends. Alberta’s mean annual temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees C (2.5 degrees F) over the last century, with much of that increase since the 1970s from rising winter and spring temperatures, according to Banff’s Rocky Mountain Outlook.
The elephant in this discussion is human-caused climate change. Writing in the New Yorker last week, Elizabeth Kolbert conceded the difficulty of pinning any particular disaster on climate change but added: the link is pretty compelling.
“In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten 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,” wrote Kolbert, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in non-fiction for her book, “The Sixth Great Extinction.”
Kolbert points to a Forest Service report published last April that found fire seasons now last an average 78 days longer than in 1970. In the past three decades, the area burned each year by forest fires has doubled.
The link to the burning of hydrocarbon is obvious, and Fort McMurray exists almost exclusively to extract oil from the gooey, tar-like substance called bitumen. From 1,200 residents, when the company now called Suncor arrived to begin the extraction, the population has grown to 88,000—all of whom were forced to flee last week as flames soared and destroyed 1,200 homes.
When I visited Fort McMurray five years ago, elected officials were expecting continued giant populations. The population was cosmopolitan, labor being in high demand. Men were shuttling in and out for two-week work sessions from homes in job-scarce Nova Scotia. At the time, the Keystone XL pipeline looked like it would happen, as well as another pipeline, to a port in British Columbia.
TransCanada’s Keystone XL has been shelved and, in Whistler, elected officials added their voice of opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. If the pipeline’s terminus in Prince Rupert Sound is several hours north of Whistler, they said, the dangers of spills were too great. Any spills would also tarnish Whistler’s reputation for a pristine environment.
On Saturday, Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden issued a statement extending support for Fort McMurray residents.
How the fire got started had not been established by Monday, but in her New Yorker piece, Kolbert pointed to a collective guilt. Greenhouse gas emissions, she pointed out, created the climate shift that made the fire more likely. “We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno,” she said.
That’s particularly true in the Rocky Mountains. About 20 percent of the oil processed at Colorado’s only refinery comes from Suncor’s operation near Fort McMurray. Chevron’s refinery in Salt Lake City also processes heavy oil from the tar sands. Anybody ever bought a tank of gas in Colorado or Utah?