Canada Burning

Ben Jackson

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Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, was notorious for one thing: oil sands. That fact is impossible to get away from – the more so now that it’s notorious for something else: burning to the ground. Over the last few days, the images have been apocalyptic: an enormous wildfire approaching houses, hotels and a hospital; lines of cars driving through smoke, sometimes appearing to drive straight through the flames. The blaze jumped over firebreaks, a highway and a river. It was so large it started to create its own weather system: lightning, but no rain. Last Tuesday, the entire city of almost 90,000 people was evacuated. No one has yet been killed by the fire, though two people died in road accidents during the evacuation.

I live in Calgary, about 400 miles south. The talk immediately turned defensive. This is an oil province, already under enormous strain as a result of low oil prices, and people couldn’t help imagining ‘sanctimonious eco-trolls’, as one commentator put it, celebrating Fort McMurray’s misfortune. The outrage began after a tweet about ‘karmic #climatechange’ by Tom Moffatt, who once ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Alberta’s legislative assembly. Responses varied from ‘sickened’ to ‘people who are calling this fire karma should probably go burn in it’. Moffatt has since been suspended from his local government job.

Jen Gerson wrote in the National Post that ‘we need to have a talk about the word “karma”,’ which ‘seemed to be spoken and unspoken among the eco-evangelists’. But if it was spoken, it was rare. Gerson cited only two offenders, both of whom quickly apologised. She added an undefined number of ‘eco-activists’ who ‘piled on’, and she’s right that a few did. But the indignation seems as much a smear tactic as anything else: the idea that there are hordes watching gleefully as a town burns is plausible only if you have bought wholesale the canard that environmentalists don’t care about people.

It’s true that more sober people couldn’t help but see the ‘black irony’ of the fire, as Drew Brown put it for Vice; Fort McMurray is a symbol of the dirtiest side of the fossil fuel economy. ‘Wildfire Rips Through Canadian City, Forcing 80,000 to Flee,’ Slate’s headlineran. ‘This Is Climate Change.’ The New Yorker’s: ‘Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change’. Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, said the fire was ‘very related to the global climate crisis’. Perhaps even this is too much when the crisis is still so raw; certainly, it’s politically risky. ‘Any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster,’ Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, warned, ‘I think there’s a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome.’

Fort McMurray saw 41mm of precipitation between January and April, not much more than half the usual. Average temperatures were weeks ahead of schedule. Last Tuesday, the city hit a record 32ºC –more than double the usual May maximum. It’s always difficult to pin any particular disaster on climate change, and this case is no exception: it’s an El Niño year, which tends to give Alberta warmer, drier winters. But Canadian forest fires now burn annually about twice the area they did in the 1970s, and the American fire season is 78 days longer than it was in 1970, according to the US Forest Service. The US National Research Council estimates that for every degree Celsius of warming, the area of landburned by wild fires in the American west will more than double; similar figures almost certainly apply in Canada.

Forests usually regenerate after wild fires, but as a plant pathologist told the National Geographic last year:

When fires are really large and severe and most of the trees burn up, it’s very difficult for a seed source to survive. Trees can take a century to regenerate. Meanwhile, fires will reoccur andkeep those areas stuck in grass and shrub.

It’s politically unfortunate that climate change resists personalisation and forces us to talk about patterns and statistics. Now may be the wrong time to discuss it, but since disasters like the Fort McMurray fire can’t be blamed directly on climate change, there may never be a right time.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Mike Davis: California Burns · 15 November 2007

Rebecca Solnit: The West Runs Dry · 3 December 2009

Tony Wood: Photographs of the Tar Sands · 21 June 2012

Thomas Jones: How can we live with it? · 23 May 2013

David Runciman: Climate Change Impasse · 24 September 2015


  • 9 May 2016 at 5:20pm
    Rob Stow says:
    The central and northern areas of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have lots of rivers and lakes. Alberta ... not so much but perhaps enough. For those who like to dream big, how about using that water in an incredibly large irrigation system to compensate for the lack of rainfail such as the forests in central and northern Alberta are experiencing.

    I don't seriously expect such an incredibly large and expensive project to be undertaken, but it is sure interesting to think about its costs and benefits. As just one thing to consider, the forests are huge carbon sinks - but only when the trees are growing instead of burning. But growth requires water - lots of it - and it would be very expensive water when Mother Nature fails to provide it and we irrigate instead. At the same time, if water from irrigation maintains the forest's health it should be less flammable - and that same irrigation system can provide water for firefighting because some fires will happen anyway.

  • 9 May 2016 at 7:04pm
    Vance Maverick says:
    Minor tangent -- it's not meaningful to speak of one temperature as being "twice" another if the reference isn't absolute zero. The record temperature was indeed startlingly higher than the usual maximum, but the difference is more meaningful than the ratio.

  • 9 May 2016 at 11:39pm
    tony lynch says:
    So its 'sanctimonious eco-trolling' to say 'Well, what do you expect?' There is the problem in a nutshell.

  • 10 May 2016 at 4:31pm
    ptrptr says:
    That's "tar sands" – or it was until a victory for oil industry PR...

    'Even the Alberta Chamber of Resources, an industry lobby group, admits that the term “oil sands” gained popularity in the mid-1990s, when government and industry began an aggressive public relations campaign to improve public perception of the dirty-sounding “tar sands.” “Oil sands,” you see, conveys a certain usefulness, a natural resource that creates jobs, increases government revenues, enhances energy security and makes investors rich beyond measure. Tar, on the other hand, is dark and heavy, the kind of glop better suited to paving roads, or coating dangerous subversives before feathering and banishing them from society altogether.'

  • 15 May 2016 at 7:08pm
    Chuck Vekert says:
    Two random thoughts. It would be good if Canada would reseed the burnt forest with some kind of tree that is less susceptible to fire and needs less water. Some sort of deciduous tree instead of an evergreen perhaps.

    In 1944 the Japanese launched about 9,000 bomb-balloons into the jet stream, which carried about 5,000 over the Pacific Northwest where they landed and exploded. The idea was to create massive forest fires. It failed completely, which was good luck for the Japanese since the fires would have had no effect on the war effort and the Americans were angry enough over Pearl Harbor.

    I suppose that the bomb-balloons would have much more effect now.

  • 18 May 2016 at 4:37pm
    Pressbaby says:
    I suppose I'll have to express this charitably. Speaking of climate change WR to Fort Mac fires is scientifically meaningless, although it seems to give solace to those who do so. A this is not my fault it is your fault frame of mind.

    Not once in this blog was El Niño mentioned and it was enormous this year. No mention either of Alberta's forest management practises. Studies have shown that these boreal forests that in the 1970's had a youthful sheen now are decidedly aged and filled with dead brush.

    This was a cutivated problem that is echoed in forest management practices throughout the world: ie Australia and California and their forest fires. Very much a man made problem but nothing at all to do with the sink hole of useless blandishments that CC has become.

  • 20 May 2016 at 1:21am
    Pressbaby says:
    Thank you Thomas. More important to my argument would be the association of this particular monstrous El Niño to the unmentioned but critical current forestry practises. This is a forest practises issue, nothing more.

    • 21 May 2016 at 10:38am
      pgillott says: @ Pressbaby
      There are a range of environmental issues that cause problems, of which climate change has the highest profile, probably with some reason. Jared Diamond, in his 2005 book Collapse, considers a wide range of environmental problems in different settings, both historic and contemporary. He writes about an increase in intensity and extent in forest fires from the 1980s, “in some forest types” in the western US. These, he says, are attributable partly to climate change and partly to forestry practices, with the relative importance of these still (when the book was written) being debated.

      You, on the other hand, seem sure that the relative contribution of climate change to this fire is that it is more or less insignificant. Rather, the cause is purely “the association of this particular monstrous El Nino” with current forestry practices. This must assume that the high temperatures are due purely to the monstrosity of the El Nino, rather than to El Nino superimposed on climate change, or intensified by climate change.

      A quick search has led to a couple of relevant pieces on this. One, by an atmospheric scientist, “urge[s] caution in attributing these particular fires to climate change” rather than to El Nino, whilst saying that trends associated with climate change have already proved to be important for the “traditional fire season”. Another, by an environmental journalist, describes how in at least one analysis (taking into account 20 different climate models), “super El Ninos” are likely to be doubled in frequency by climate change, but that not all researchers agree with this. The general impression may be in line with what Ben Jackson says about the difficulty of pinning an individual disaster on climate change, but it seems rash, at least for anyone who doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of climate science, to say that its contribution has been zero.

  • 26 May 2016 at 6:52pm
    J. Kirkpatrick says:
    Another unmentioned factor so far is the slogan, adopted by US forest services a few years ago: "Let it Burn--it's Natural." Well it might be, but under climate change and higher temperatures during fire season(s)this slogan is dangerous. It allowed the FS to relax and not spend money on cutting out brush and thinning out spindly trees. Today the FS has to keep hiring firefighters in California and parts of the Rockies. Since something has been causing rainfall far beyond its usual weeks/months over Idaho's mountains and valleys, Idaho recently sent some of our firefighters to Canada to help with the tar sands fire.

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