Fort McMurray is a humanitarian disaster

It’s sadly ironic that the city had to empty out in an emergency for the rest of Canada to come to properly understand it.

Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey
Landsat 7 satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire on May 4, 2016. ourtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey NASA

One afternoon last June, I witnessed a distinctive ritual in the parking lot of a suburban Fort McMurray high school. It was a Friday during Ramadan, and the city’s devout Muslims were streaming into the school’s gymnasium for midday prayers. They arrived in twos and threes and in extended families of eight and twelve. They came wearing hijabs and taqiyahs, embroidered salwar kameez and immaculate white dishdashas and stained work overalls and clunking steel-toed boots. They were Sunni, Shia, Ismaili. They were Nigerian, Sudanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Pakistani, and Indian. More than 2,000 people came—the downtown mosque is far too small for Friday prayers during Ramadan—and they were a time-lapse photo of the last quarter century of Canadian immigration.

Most Canadian cities took fifty years to reconfigure themselves into some of the world’s most brazenly multicultural metropolises. And now here was a small frontier city that had undergone the whole process in barely a decade, producing a polyglot Muslim congregation unlike any in Canada.

That high school parking lot scene was what I thought of first, when the frantic reports started rolling in the day the wildfire forced the evacuation of the whole city. Perhaps it was because the sight was the most unexpected thing I encountered on repeated visits to Fort McMurray over the last eighteen months while researching a book on Canada’s oilsands. Even as a Calgarian, with more direct connections than many to the place, I’d absorbed enough of the distorted myth of Fort McMurray—the brawling frontier boom town, the outsized work camp, the fast-money capital of “dirty oil”—that its real face was a surprise.

The people of Fort McMurray are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war.

It’s been heartening, amid the still unfolding horror of a fire locals have come to call the “Beast,” to see much of the reporting on Fort McMurray present that human face to the rest of the country and the world. The powerful stories of courage and compassion have been too numerous to track. School bus drivers on fifteen-hour salvation journeys, the tireless stoicism of the firefighters battling the blaze, a teenager riding her beloved horse out of town ahead of the flames. And on and on.

It’s sadly ironic that the city had to empty out in an emergency for the rest of Canada to come to properly understand it. But we are trying now, at least. And the one-dimensional myth surely can’t survive the brash humanity revealed daily by the disaster. That myth is the one thing I’m glad to see devoured by the flames.

But there has been another track to the media’s coverage of the wildfire. It grows more pronounced the further you travel away from Fort McMurray, and its persistence is worth examining, because it speaks so clearly to how using the city as a symbol erases its human face. And here I mean the burgeoning discussion of the fire’s root causes—in particular, the role played by climate change.

On the surface of it, this conversation is reasonable, even necessary. Climate change was undoubtedly a factor feeding the Beast to some extent; climate change, in any case, promises many more disasters like this one in our future. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker, this discussion of root causes might seem insensitive while the fire still burns, but “to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense”—a failure to take proper responsibility for our role. “We’ve all contributed to the latest inferno,” she notes. Emphasis on all implied, if not explicitly stated.

Kolbert’s analysis was mostly measured and careful. Many others, which I’ll come to in a moment, have been much less so. But even she insists on making reference early on to “a Florida-sized formation known as the tar sands,” which points at the difficulty with this approach to the wildfire coverage.

In my research, I’ve encountered dozens of stories about Fort McMurray that traffic freely in boom town myths, and not one neglects to note the overall size of the total bitumen deposit in northern Alberta—often described as “the size of England,” though Florida will do—nor fails to differentiate between the total deposit and the scale of current operations. There is an implicit point being scored here: imagine the images you’ve surely seen of tailings ponds and open-pit mines. Now imagine all of Florida, all of England. By contrast, the “oil sands mineable area cleared or disturbed,” as the Alberta government refers to it, covers an area the size of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Urban area, not metro.

These boom town dispatches also tend to studiously avoid the term “oilsands,” even though that is the more common term locally and in the industry (and the preferred one in the Canadian Press style guide), and it has been used interchangeably with “tar sands” since long before the first major mining operation established itself under the moniker “Great Canadian Oil Sands” in the 1960s. Another implicit point scored: the writer will not be caught doing what is presumed to be Big Oil’s bidding by using a term that might make the industry seem less intrinsically dirty, helping to spin-doctor the tar out of the sands. (You see less concern, when discussing cookery, about using “rapeseed oil” to avoid the taint of Big Canola.)

Many other quick takes on the Fort McMurray wildfire and climate change have been, as I said, nowhere near as careful as Kolbert’s. On the day the fire first roared into the city, my Twitter feed started to fill with breathless updates and retweets—first from locals and Alberta-based journalists, but soon after from climate advocacy types far distant from the province. This is a section of Twitter in which I’d only ever seen Fort McMurray mentioned as the root of all climate evil. And that resonance, whether intended or not, matters.

Within days, frequent climate change commetators soon filled international media outlets with reasons why we simply must discuss the link between climate change and Fort McMurray’s peril—immediately, explicitly, repeatedly, ad nauseum. At Slate, Eric Holthaus wrote about the fire twice in the first four days of the disaster. “This is Climate Change,” read the first headline. “We need to talk about climate change,” read the second. Holthaus appeared mainly to be addressing an intransigent U.S. audience – rather than try to figure out what Alberta’s political culture might actually look like, for example, he simply made passing reference to “petrostate politics” with a link to a Slate story about President Obama. But his story joined a growing viral flow of contentious online posts and comments insistent on turning the fire into climate action agitprop before it was even contained.

At the Guardian, Montreal-based writer Martin Lukacs was even more strident. He placed the blame for the fire entirely on the oil industry’s “corporate arsonists,” listing six by name: ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Total, CNRL, and Chevron. The selection is rather odd, in that it names only one Canadian company (CNRL) and skips the two biggest names in the oil sands—Suncor and Syncrude. Perhaps this is because Suncor and Syncrude are more difficult to fit into an argument predicated on the existence of a detached and uncontrollable enemy force. The two companies, who together proved the oil sands concept commercially and built the industry as we know it, were nurtured by massive public funding and public support and functioned somewhat in the same vein as Crown corporations for years. Lukacs, though, appears mostly interested in hurrying through Fort McMurray’s fire en route to linking it to the corporate deceit of ExxonMobil. The city is primarily a cluster of corporate oil logos in this narrative.

All of this is within the realm of fair comment, I suppose—a tragedy on this scale is going to invite a wide range of debate from any number of angles. But it’s deeply disingenous for commentators eager to link the fire to climate change to presume they arrive at the disaster site without their own baggage. Within a seventy-two-hour stretch, for example, climate activist Bill McKibben solicited donations for Fort McMurray’s displaced in his Twitter feed and co-authored an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun calling for a permanent moratorium on “tar sands pipelines.” To presume solidarity with the people of Fort McMurray and actively campaign against their livelihoods requires a remarkable feat of compartmentalization.

As just about anyone in Fort McMurray will readily tell you, their city long since vanished as a real place in such conversations. Once the proposed Keystone XL pipeline became the proxy for all the world’s climate destruction, Fort McMurray was reconfigured as the “carbon bomb” looming over virtually every climate change debate, the impending disaster to be avoided at all costs. And built into that rhetoric was an implication of complicity. If it was not always stated, it was self-evident nonetheless, especially to Fort McMurray residents: to make your living packing explosives into the carbon bomb was to be part of the plot to commit the worst of climate crimes. If you didn’t feel like that accurately described your job as a heavy haul truck driver or millwright or geological engineer—let alone schoolteacher or nurse or city planner—you learned to tune it out. You maybe wondered why it was still okay to be on the demand side of the oil equation but now criminally complicit to work on this particular piece of the supply side. But mostly you understood these were not people trying to engage you in an honest discussion about your hometown.

Still, it couldn’t help but grate on the locals and their allies, especially in the midst of the worst natural disaster in Alberta’s history. This is how a single imbecilic tweet about climate and karma by some long-forgotten Alberta NDP candidate came to make national news, as cranks on the right treated it as the true expression of all progressives everywhere. The cranks did themselves few favours, but the sentiment resonated nonetheless, because Fort McMurray has been so badly misconstrued for so long. It has carried such symbolic freight over the past decade, mostly against its will, that it felt necessary to say it: “Fort McMurray is a place.” This was the opening sentence of Edmonton Journal political columnist Paula Simons’ first piece on the fire. This inferno is a tragedy of human scale, house by house, block by block, before it is anything else. Long before it is anything else.

Why, in any case, would now be exactly the time to talk about Fort McMurray and wildfires and climate change’s connections to both? What point could only be made while the fires still burn? With what intent, if not to imply the complicity of the employees of “corporate arsonists” in an oil boom town? And who exactly is engaged by such a conversation, if not the same people who clucked at the last climate-connected disaster and the one before that and wondered smugly when these foolish people would ever learn? Who, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, stops to talk at length about policy? So score rhetorical points with the choir from Fort McMurray’s plight if you really must, but at least cop to it.

As I write this, the thousands of Fort McMurray residents who filed into a high school gym last summer for Friday prayers are all homeless. So are the thousands who came from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and Ontario and British Columbia, and the thousands more who have lived in the city for a generation or more. All were drawn by the opportunity to be part of a resource town’s story of success and prosperity as old as the country itself. If that story is flawed, it is flawed the same way it is in Yellowknife or Yarmouth or any of a thousand other resource towns in this resource-rich country. The residents of Fort McMurray are no more complicit than I am or you are in the calamity that fell upon their city. (To her credit, this was Elizabeth Kolbert’s final point.)

Fort McMurray is not a work camp, and these people’s homes were not temporary. And they are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war. One story you hear often from longtime Fort McMurray residents is one of a hard-won existence, of the resilience and tenacity it took to carve out an industry and a community in the face of great doubt and long odds. The resource for decades unyielding in its refusal to become a commodity, the industry marginal, perpetually on the verge of abandonment, the climate unforgiving at every turn. I suspect the city’s collective response to this tragedy will fit this narrative better than those imposed on it from afar.

Chris Turner
Chris Turner is the author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. He is based in Calgary.