City at the Heart of the Alberta Tar Sands Burning to the Ground

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 1.54.48 PM

Blazes in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Video still from Youtube footage posted by Jason Edmondson.


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

The wildfires began some five days ago in the forests west of the city and then worsened when strong winds carried the fires to the edge and into the city, creating quasi-apocalyptic conditions. The city center is burning, including the city hospital. Flights in and out of the airport were cancelled as of noon on May 4.

Scott Long, executive director of provincial operations for Alberta Emergency Management Agency, is reported in the Globe and Mail daily on May 4 saying that the entire city may burn to the ground. “Based on the wildfire reports, the conditions – we don’t want that to happen; obviously we’re working towards preventing that – but it is a possibility that we may lose a large portion of the town, yes.”

Temperatures in northern Alberta have been way above seasonal normals, in the high 20s and low 30s (Celsius). More strong winds are expected through the evening and night of May 4 and 5 as cooler weather moves in.

According to CBC News on May 4, the building housing the command center of firefighting operations in Fort McMurray is threatened by the fire and operations had to be moved. The fire has consumed 10,000 hectares of forested and city land (app. 39 square miles). Some 1,600 homes and buildings have been destroyed.

The city was ordered evacuated 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 to the south 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.

Update on May 5: The fires burning Fort McMurray continue to spread. The communities of Anzac and Lake Gregoire, located 40 km south of Fort McMurray, have been ordered evacuated. Tar sands extraction operations are not immediately threatened, but several are undergoing expensive shutdowns. About one third of Albert’s daily oil and bitumen production of two million barrels has been shut down.

The government of British Columbia has announced it is unable to send firefighting equipment and personnel to assist because similar hot and dry conditions that sparked the fires in Fort McMurray are causing unseasonably high numbers of forest fires in that province.

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. It was torched,” she said.

“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 recalled. She saw police officers in oxygen masks and civilians breathing through wet cloths. “It almost looks like a zombie apocalypse,” she told the Globe.

Canada’s radio and television airwaves are swamped with reporting of the panicked escapes of the tens of thousands of residents of the city. Some were stalled at roadside leaving the city as their vehicles ran out of gasoline or their vehicle engines were disabled by smoke. CBC Radio One’s The Current program talked to survivors in its broadcast of May 4.

On the May 5 broadcast of The Current, McMurray resident Crystal Mercredi spoke of her harrowing and chaotic escape from the city, saying that emergency services were barely evident. “They evacuated us so late. So late that people were stuck in traffic, and people were calling the radio station, saying…’We’re bumper-to-bumper. We can’t move. Come and save us…we’re sitting ducks.’ ”

“My nephew got out of school an hour before it burned down,” Mercredi said. “They should not have had school yesterday. This was so poorly handled.”  (An interactive map at the Current weblink shows the spread of the fire from May 1 to 5.)

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 km to Fort McMurray to fight the fires.

Karl Hill was a fire department captain in Slave Lake in May 2011 when a similar wildfire burned down a third of the small city. He told the Globe that like other firefighters in Slave Lake past and present, 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. 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 fire in Slave Lake was the second largest property damage insurance claim in Canadian history. It was second to the ice storm that hit Montreal in January 1998. That year, a freak, freezing rain storm downed the giant power cables feeding Montreal from hydro-electric dams on the coast of James Bay, 1000 km to the north.

There is a grim irony that the service center of the Alberta tar sands behemoth is 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, a city which has grown rapidly along with tar sands production itself during the past two decades, and the many decades of destructive, clearcut forest industry practices which are common right across Canada (see article .

There is 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 the province of Alberta. The Government of Alberta and its NDP premier, Rachel Notley, is embarked on a parallel effort, while the premier herself is a lead attacker against the pro-planet Leap Manifesto and the movement promoting the manifesto.

The premier of the neighbouring province to the west, British Columbia, where this writer lives, is counting on the tar sands as a customer to the giant ‘Site C’ hydroelectric dam her government is bulldozing into construction. Site C was and is entirely superfluous to the province’s energy needs if the government was serious about shifting energy supply to renewables. The dam is conceived to realize the government’s dreams to sponsor the creation of a liquefied natural gas industry. But those dreams have been frustrated by the exigencies of the world market for fossil fuels.

* A news story with photos and video of the raging fire in Fort McMurray is herein the National Post, one of the two daily newspapers in Canada, both conservative and pro-fossil fuels.

* Scientific American has reported on May 4, 2016 the burning of Fort McMurray:Destructive Wildfire near Canada’s Oil Sands May Have Been Fueled by Global Warming, by Brian Kahn, May 4, 2016

The devastating natural disaster in Fort McMurray is “consistent” with climate change

* * *

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

‘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. It is published on Roberts Scribbler on May 2, 2016.

The article reads: “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, Truthout.org‘s always-gripping climate science reporter Dahr Jamail has penned a new article on May 2 in which he writes:

Each month as I write these dispatches, I shake my head in disbelief at the rapidity at which anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) 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.

Jamail’s latest article is here: As climate disruption advances, UN warns: “The future is happening now”.


Extensive news coverage and analysis of the burning of Fort McMurray and its aftermath is being written and published in the online National Observer.

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Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.

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