Canada: New climate warning as tar sands town burns

May 8, 2016
Wildfires devastate Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Fort McMurray, the city that serves as the hub of one of the world's largest climate-wrecking projects, Canada's Alberta tar sands, is burning to the ground due to wildfires sparked by unseasonably dry and hot weather.

The wildfires began at the end of April in forests west of the city. It worsened when strong winds carried the fires into the city, creating quasi-apocalyptic conditions. The city centre is burning, including the city hospital. Flights in and out of the airport were cancelled as of May 4.

On May 4, Globe and Mail reported that executive director of provincial operations for Alberta Emergency Management Agency Scott Long said the entire city may burn to the ground: “Based on the wildfire reports, the conditions … it is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town, yes.”

Temperatures in northern Alberta have been way above seasonal norms — in the high 20s and low 30s Celsius. As of May 5, the fire had consumed 10,000 hectares of forested and city land. About 1600 homes and buildings had been destroyed.

An evacuation of the city was ordered on May 3. Most residents fled by road to Edmonton to the south. The rapid pace of the fire's advance left many residents with very little time to flee. Roads were jammed, causing the normal exit time of ten minutes out of the city to stretch into hours. All four lanes of the highway connecting to Edmonton were occupied by traffic exiting the city.

Thousands of residents have moved into the work camps at tar sands operations north of the city. Most of those operations are well north and are not threatened by the fire.


Resident Cassie White, 19, told the Globe and Mail that she feared for her life as she fled the city. Her southbound journey was stalled near Gregoire, just south of the city. “On the left was a big gas station; the flames jumped over the highway and blew up the gas station,” she said.

“It was torched. People were driving on the highway shoulder. There were flames maybe 15 feet high right off the highway. There was a dump truck on fire — I had to swerve around it — and there was a pickup truck on fire as well. The entire trailer park on my right was in flames. Roofs were coming down.”

A huge sheet of debris — possibly part of a roof — hit her car as she drove up a hill. She saw police officers in oxygen masks and civilians breathing through wet cloths. “It almost looks like a zombie apocalypse,” she told the Globe.

The fire chief of the town of Slave Lake told the Globe that forest conditions in northern Alberta are the driest in 20 years. Chief Jamie Coutts and his department answered the call to travel the 400 kilometres to Fort McMurray to fight the fires.

Karl Hill was a fire department captain in Slave Lake in northern Alberta in 2011 when a similar wildfire burned down a third of the small city. He told the Globe that he felt a growing sense of unease in recent weeks due to warm and dry conditions across Alberta.

“This spring reminded me a lot of Slave Lake in 2011, in terms of the wind and the early warm weather,” he said.

“I've been nervous the last two weeks hoping that another repeat of Slave Lake didn't happen in Alberta. Unfortunately, today seems to suggest that it has happened. It's unbelievable.”

Until now, the 2011 Slave Lake fire was the second largest property damage insurance claim in Canadian history — after the ice storm that hit Montreal in 1998.

Global warming irony

There is a grim irony in the service centre of the Alberta tar sands behemoth burning to the ground due to rising global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Other factors that may be contributing to the disaster are the geographic planning of Fort McMurray, which has grown rapidly along with tar sands production during the past two decades, and the many decades of destructive, clearcut forest industry practices that are common right across Canada.

It is a great political tragedy that the burning of Fort McMurray coincides with political offensives by the supporters in Canada of fossil fuel extraction and burning.

The federal government in Ottawa is unleashing a “social license” campaign in favour of expanded tar sands pipelines emanating from Alberta. The government of Alberta, headed by New Democratic Party premier Rachel Notley, has embarked on a parallel effort. The premier is leading attacks against the pro-planet Leap Manifesto and the movement promoting the manifesto.

Coincidentally, two recent articles summarise harrowing indicators of an acceleration of destructive consequences of human-induced warming of the planet caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Published on Roberts Scribbler on May 2, “Arctic Sea Ice is Falling off a Cliff and it May Not Survive The Summer” is a summary of the findings from temperature readings and sea ice conditions in the Arctic region.

The article said: “Back in the first decade of the 21st Century, the mainstream scientific view was that Arctic sea ice would be about in the range that it is today by around 2070 or 2080.

“And that we wouldn't be contemplating the possibility of zero or near zero sea ice until the end of this Century. But the amazing ability of an unconscionable fossil fuel emission to rapidly transform our world for the worst appears now to outweigh that cautious science…”

Meanwhile,'s always-gripping climate science reporter Dahr Jamail penned a new article on May 2, in which he wrote: “Each month as I write these dispatches, I shake my head in disbelief at the rapidity at which anthropogenic climate disruption is occurring.

“It's as though each month I think, 'It can't possibly keep happening at this incredible pace.' But it does.

“By late April, the Mauna Loa Observatory, which monitors atmospheric carbon dioxide, recorded an incredible daily reading: 409.3 parts per million.

“That is a range of atmospheric carbon dioxide content that this planet has not seen for the last 15 million years, and 2016 is poised to see these levels only continue to increase.”

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