Fort McMurray residents received the first good news since their terrifying evacuation one week ago, when a survey of the city showed that nearly 90% of its structures had survived intact through the massive wildfire that burned into the tar sands/oil sands capital on May 3.
Other consequences of the inferno were also coming into focus—from the toxic challenges of cleaning up, to a renewed political urgency for fighting climate change.
An official assessment found that 2,400 structures burned during the fire—but round-the-clock efforts by firefighting crews managed to save some 25,000. Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen, who led the city’s defence, credited the dedication of Fort McMurray’s emergency responders with preventing much greater loss.
“This was a horrible fire. Whatever we tried to do, it went a different way,” Allen told Global News. As much as half the city could have been lost, he said, had firefighters not held the flames back in several key battles. “The good news is, there are many, many areas untouched.”
Allen appeared almost apologetic for the losses that had occurred, saying: “There were hundreds of people, emergency services staff that gave their all. I do truly believe we couldn’t have done any more. We did our best.” As a result of those efforts, he added, “Fort McMurray is still alive. We’re ready for the future, and when we get you back we can build a future together.”
When that will happen however, remained unclear. Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley warned evacuated residents they face weeks of exile before the city will be safe enough for them to return. Some areas are still smouldering, and many are without water and electricity services.
Even then, the Calgary Herald reported, residents will be returning to a scene littered with toxic hazards. Citing UC Berkley fire scientist Scott Stephens, and tests done on the ashes of more than 400 homes destroyed by wildfire in Slave Lake in 2011, the paper warned of the potential presence of toxic metals including arsenic and lead, complex and carcinogenic dioxins and furans, and “a powerful neurotoxin especially dangerous to children.” The toxins are the remains of incinerated wiring, furniture, appliances, and other manufactured items. Ash collected after similar wildfires in California was found to be as caustic as oven cleaner when it mixed with water.
Other impacts however, may be somewhat milder than anticipated. Firefighters’ success in saving buildings may lower overall losses by as much as $2 billion from initial estimates of $9 billion—a figure that earlier prompted Blooomberg to suggest that Canada’s losses from the Fort McMurray fire “could be bigger on a relative basis than [Hurricane] Katrina, the storm that hit New Orleans in 2005, [and] cost US$60.5 billion.”
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that tar sands/oil sands producers were planning to restart at least some of the million barrels per day of output—roughly half the industry’s capacity—that was suspended at the height of the fire. The logistics of staffing facilities with much of the region’s work force dispersed posed the biggest hurdle.
With the worst of the emergency past, however, key national voices warned that the event’s larger lesson must not be overlooked. “We must talk about the causes,” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in an interview, “and for me, climate change—extreme weather events—is the face of this problem. It’s not about the economy, it’s not about industry, it’s an issue about the environment.”
British Columbia’s Premier Christy Clark told another interviewer that, “clearly, these fires are the results, in part, of climate change in Canada.” According to the National Observer, however, the B.C. premier quickly turned the subject to a climate-based defence of her own province’s wish to export liquefied natural gas.
Perhaps that was one more indication that the national conversation was returning to normal after a devastating week.