Too soon to talk climate change as Fort Mac, oil sands region burns?

Social media comments suggesting Fort McMurray residents got what they deserved for supporting oil sands are despicable

It happens every time: Natural disasters get used to score cheap political points. But is it fair to point out that climate change may have something to do with the horrific wildfire burning the oil sands city of Fort McMurray?

Fort McMurray
Fort McMurray residents fleeing for their lives through a wildfire that threatens to burn the entire city of 80,000.

For my American readers, Fort Mac is the epicentre of the Canadian oil sands, located about 250 miles (435 kms) northeast of the Alberta capital of Edmonton. The community of about 80,000 souls was evacuated Tuesday as a wildfire roared into town, forcing folks to flee for their lives, often through fiery corridors of burning trees and buildings. The huge oil sands plants north of the city aren’t in harm’s way yet, but global markets are closely watching a situation that can change in the blink of an eye thanks to strong winds.

Canada’s Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, set off her own firestorm of controversy by suggesting during a press conference that the Fort McMurray fire was caused by climate change. In her own words:

“The fact that the forest fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event – very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation and it is, as we saw in the quote from one of the firefighters – it’s a firestorm,” she said. “It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”

She also remarked that the only solution is “transitioning away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”

Fort McMurray
Elizabeth May, Canadian Green Party leader.

May’s comments brought swift rebuke from a variety of Canadian political leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and it didn’t take long for her to backtrack: “Some reports have suggested that the wildfires are directly caused by climate change. No credible climate scientist would make this claim, and neither do I make this claim.”

Well, what are climate scientists – and others – saying about the causes of wildfires?

“We know from looking at weather records from the last 100 years that the fire season is lengthening, and intense fires like this are increasingly common,” Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, told Macleans.

“The area burned in Canada has increased over the past 40 to 50 years. This is due to human-caused climate change,” Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta and the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, said in the same story.

But climate change isn’t the only factor creating more, and more severe, wildfires.



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The Alberta government commissioned the Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review Committee to investigate after the disastrous 2011 fire that burned much of the northern town of Slave Lake. The committee found that boreal forests ” historically burned on an average cycle ranging from 50 to 200 years” before humans began fighting wildfires.

“Wildfire suppression has significantly reduced the area burned in Alberta’s boreal forest. However, due to reduced wildfire activity, forests of Alberta are aging, which ultimately changes ecosystems and is beginning to increase the risk of large and potentially costly catastrophic wildfires.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 7.31.47 AMAs Figure 4 from the report ably demonstrates, Alberta forests contain a much greater proportion of mature and over-mature trees in 2011 than it did in 1957 or 1971.

Ironically, the government’s efforts to protect forests, and the people and industrial operations that occupy them, appear to have exacerbated the wildfire problem.

The committee recommended a number of strategies to reduce the wildfire threat – including accelerating “fuel management treatments” such as thinning coniferous stands to reduce the “fuel load” – to communities like Fort McMurray.

It also recommended allocating more resources to firefighting, but the NDP government of Rachel Notley decided to cut $15 million from the wildfire budget, including tanker contracts by $5.1 million and baseline management by $9.6 million, according to Metro News. The government says it will take money from an emergency fund if necessary, and if that proves insufficient, will ask Treasury for more money yet.

The  moral of this sad story is that the causes of the Fort McMurray wildfire tragedy are many and complex. And, as Elizabeth May learned, one cannot get away with drawing a straight line between the burning of fossil fuels and “climate events.”

So, to answer my earlier question, yes, it is fair to say that climate change played a role in the Fort Mac wildfire. How big a role will no doubt be determined by yet another post-inferno investigation. My uneducated guess, based upon my reading and years spent living on the edge of the Saskatchewan boreal forest, is a smaller rather than a larger part.

A final word about the hard-hearted delight many climate activists took in the misfortune of their fellow citizens. I won’t dignify the callous remarks that were all over social media the past two days by repeating them here. Some of the culpable individuals have been called to account, and rightfully so. But even if we were weeks or months removed from the Fort Mac calamity, the brutal lack of empathy was shocking.

Hopefully, cooler heads can sensibly debate climate change, wildfires, and the oil sands after this misfortune is behind us. Because we will have the discussion. That is unavoidable.

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  1. Thank you for this article. While I’m by no means an environmental activist, nor do I fully support many climate change articles, scare tactics, nor “research”, I can 100% agree with what was said in this article. It was well articulated, and seemed to me to touch on the full subject matter (old growth forests) as well as potential climate change causes.

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