Fort McMurray Alberta, the center of Canada’s oil industry is on fire and climate change is the most likely suspect. The wall of flames that engulfed the town has forced residents to flee. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed and 80,000 people are now homeless. They have found refuge in nearby towns and cities but they remain uncertain about the fate of their homes and their belongings.
Although there are no reports of any injuries or fatalities at this point, it is nonetheless a terrible situation for residents of the town.
It is not insensitive to discuss the reasons why Fort McMurray is burning, in fact it is essential that we understand why. We must ask out of respect for the people of the town. We must ask with the hope that understanding will lead to action that decreases the likelihood of a recurrence.
It is well known that the incidence and intensity of forest fires are exacerbated by climate change. Hot dry conditions along with an abnormally low snow pack have created the right conditions for the Fort McMurray fire.
An anomalous spring heat wave has broken temperature records in much of Western Canada, including Fort McMurray. The heat wave may be due the disruption of the jet-stream, attributable to global warming.
There is a relationship between forest fires and climate change. This has been studied in Australia, California and the Western North America. To add insult to injury there is a dangerous feedback loop between forest fires and climate change.
According to a Climate Central article:
“Boreal forests are burning at a rate unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. A Climate Central analysis of Alaskan wildfires last year showed that the season is 40 percent longer than it was 65 years ago. Large wildfires there have also doubled over that time. In Canada, wildfire season now starts a month earlier than it used to and the average annual area burned has doubled since 1970…”
It is more than a little ironic that the center of the Canadian fossil fuel industry is now experiencing the ravages of climate change first hand. But it is no less tragic for those in the fire’s path.
This may be a wake-up call for Canada and the world. The devastating fire draws attention to the connection between fossil fuels and climate, it also forces us to make a decision about the future of a city like Fort McMurray and by extension the future of energy.
Should the town be rebuilt to serve the old energy infrastructure that built it? The logical answer to that question is no. If the town rebuilds, it should be with an eye to the future and not the past.