Though residents remain traumatized six years after the wildfire known as “The Beast” tore through Fort McMurray, Alberta, their fierce loyalty to Alberta’s fossil energy industry leaves many unwilling to connect the dots between greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and the increasing ferocity of wildfires.
Even as their world goes up in smoke, the “Alberta Advantage” of relatively lower taxes funded by oil and gas royalties continues to exert an enormous hold on the thoughts and emotions of many Fort McMurray residents, and Albertans more generally, reports the Toronto Star.
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Citing a 2021 Leger poll, the Star writes that “among all the provinces, 27% of Albertans “did not worry about climate change at all,” a proportion without parallel anywhere in Canada—despite expensive and traumatic experiences like The Beast and the massive floods of 2018 that hammered Fort McMurray, the capital of Canada’s tar sands/oil sands industry.
“There’s a reluctance among many in the province to accept any kind of narrative that would pose an existential threat to the [fossil] energy industry—even as the looming threat of more frequent and intense natural disasters driven by that industry reaches their backyards,” writes the Star.
The story quotes Kellie Bosch, a mother of two who says she still suffers from the trauma of her family’s flight away from the encroaching wildfire. While vowing that “if it happens again, I’m not coming back,” the Star says Bosch remains “fiercely loyal to Fort McMurray, where her kids were born.”
Fire chief Damian Asher said he sees no reason to be afraid, confident that the blaze which engulfed his hometown wasn’t unprecedented, but rather par for the course, thanks to poor forest management. Pinning the blame on the failure to conduct controlled burns every 10 to 50 years to keep the tinder box element to a minimum, Asher said a fire like The Beast was “inevitable.”
While he agreed that poor fire suppression strategies are a part of the problem, wildfire expert David Scott of the University of British Columbia pointed to “pretty broad agreement” among scientists that climate change is the primary driver. Global heating melts snowpacks earlier in the spring, while making summers increasingly hot and dry.
“It’s not to say that every summer will be especially hot, or especially dry, but on average, we can expect those sort of wildfire-type years to arrive with greater frequency,” Scott said.
“We’re also getting into ‘unsuppressible’ wildfire, so we actually can’t stop them,” added UBC wildfire specialist Kira Hoffman. “And that’s quite scary, I think, for a lot of people.”
Better forest management will help, but a change of mindset is what is most urgently needed, the Star writes.
“It is inevitable that we are going to lose whole communities,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think people are really thinking that through. I think a lot of people still see this as this distant future,” but “it’s happening right now.”
But even in the face of overwhelming evidence—and her own direct experience—Kellie Bosch “isn’t quite so sure,” writes the Star. “What she does know is her experience in the Fort McMurray fire only reinforced her love for the city and the energy industry that drives it.”
“If it’s climate change, maybe we need to change our ways, it’s possible,” Bosch said. “It still wouldn’t stop me from living here, though.”