Climate change and giant Alberta fire’s legacy of anxiety
Kellie Bosch was in her backyard drinking some wine when an ember of ash drifted into her glass.
That’s when she knew the fire of 2016 would be different.
Having lived in Fort McMurray, nestled in northern Alberta’s boreal forest, for some 10 years at that point, she was no stranger to wildfire season. It was a “wicked hot” May — but the flames had never flickered this close to town before. She could see the blaze on the horizon through her bedroom window.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been here a lot of years and I’ve never seen a fire this close.’ So I just kind of snapped into panic mode,” Bosch recalls of that day.
Within hours, she and her family would be fleeing for their lives after officials ordered a mandatory evacuation.
It’s been six years since the massive fire known as The Beast tore through Canada’s largest oil and gas hub, causing the costliest natural disaster in this country’s history. It was four years later, in the midst of an oil downturn that sent the once-booming town into bust territory, that the same community was hit with massive floods that forced 13,000 people to evacuate, some for the second time.
There are Fort McMurray residents who still live with mental and emotional trauma. There is also the fear it will happen again.
The memories weigh on Bosch.
Today, she tries to never let her gas tank drop to less than half full. She gets anxious if it does — thinking back to the long lines at gas stations as people tried to flee Fort McMurray and the fire descending upon it, that sense of panic and chaos that she compared to a war zone. Some stations had burned to the ground. Gas, once the blood that kept Fort McMurray’s economy pumping, became a lifeline for people to escape.
It’s not her only trigger. Hearing helicopters overhead reminds her of her family’s perilous journey to get out of the city. Panic sets in as soon as she gets an emergency notification on her phone, such as an Amber Alert. And there’s still the scorched skeletons of trees lining the town, seemingly inescapable: “As soon as you drive anywhere around the perimeter of the city it’s what you see … the landscape is forever changed.”
There are scientists who say Alberta’s climate is changing, too — primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, by far the world’s No. 1 contributor to total carbon emissions. But it’s those same fuels that created “The Alberta Advantage”; Alberta has long been the only province without a sales tax, thanks to its oil and gas royalties.
As a result, there’s a reluctance among many in the province to accept any kind of narrative that would pose an existential threat to the energy industry — even as the looming threat of more frequent and intense natural disasters driven by that industry reaches their backyards (sometimes literally, as in Bosch’s case).
Indeed, a Leger poll last year found that among all provinces, 27 per cent of Albertans “did not worry about climate change at all” — the highest percentage in the country.
Fort McMurray’s oil and gas industry has for decades been an outsized contributor to Canada’s economy. It’s also been called “the world’s most destructive oil operation” by National Geographic. Rocker Neil Young once visually compared it to the aftermath of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.
But for all the criticism Fort Mac gets for its energy industry and how it contributes to global carbon emissions, Albertans are themselves facing the impacts of climate change head on.
Last year, Alberta saw 1,308 wildfires, slightly more than the five-year average of 1,123. Wildfires have always been a feature of Alberta’s spring and summer seasons, but scientists say they’re getting more intense and frequent.
Over the past decade or so, several fires and floods, which experts say are linked, have left a mark on the province — the 2013 flooding in and around Calgary was the costliest disaster in Canadian history until eclipsed by the Fort McMurray fire.
There was also a massive fire in the northern town of Slave Lake in 2011, which was ultimately blamed on arson. But it’s likely that year’s dry conditions and high winds contributed to that fire’s spread.
Bosch, a mother of two who works at a women’s shelter and is married to a firefighter, said the blaze in her city changed her forever.
She is far more knowledgeable in disaster preparation, she said; her family is less reliant on the government, as she believes the evacuation order should have been issued several days earlier. And she has learned her how trivial physical possessions are compared to her family.
Her family lost the house they had been renting out in 2016 to the fire, and then lost another home in 2021 to a different, accidental fire. Her husband, a firefighter, ended up having to put out the flames consuming his own home.
“That was a weird thing,” Bosch said. “Being a firefighter, they go through this stuff all the time. But when it is your own stuff, and your own life? It really rocked him to his core.”
Through trial by fire, the family has been through a lot, but today they’re more resilient, Bosch said, though this time of year is always a bit hard for her.
She is fiercely loyal to Fort McMurray, where here kids were born. But she does sometimes worry about The Beast, Part 2.
“I have already said many times, if it happens again, I’m not coming back.”
Brian Jean says he found out his own house was on fire while he was in the Alberta legislature during Question Period; he’d been criticizing then-premier Rachel Notley over the province’s response to the blaze, and then he got a fateful call from a nephew.
As the local MLA, he is a fierce defender of the oil and gas industry. He is vehemently against a carbon tax, says there’s no fossil-fuel industry that’s more responsible than Canada’s and argues we’re a small fish in the pond of carbon emitters.
But he also lost two homes to natural events within four years, first in the fire and then again the floods. Get Jean talking about the environment and he’s quick to pivot to how many of the problems Canada faces are due to a failure in leadership; he is, after all, in the midst of a fight to take over the governing United Conservative Party from embattled Premier Jason Kenney.
Ask him how those events affected him personally, however, and his reticence starts to fade. He acknowledges there is something different happening in his province, and around the world — something that has touched his life in numerous ways.
“I’ve noticed that, yeah, we’ve had a one-in-200-year-flood here, a fire that devastated our community and apparently couldn’t be stopped as it was happening. All of these things in my lifetime … obviously make you take notice of what’s going on in the world.”
Jean sees himself as a problem solver. He’s not in a position to lose sleep worrying about climate change. He points to all sorts of things that could have been done to reduce the impact of the 2016 fire — faster response, earlier evacuation — and has other ideas for preventing future incidents, such as ramping up the clearing of dense debris that fuels the fires from the forest floor, and using drones to better predict fires.
The impacts of that fire continue to be felt today. Many people who left Fort Mac never came back. Once known as an inflated housing market, Jean says the city has never seen lower housing prices, even with the recent high price of oil. There are fully serviced empty lots that were occupied for 40 years that now sit empty.
It pains Jean to see how the fire has affected his hometown.
“I’ve known a lady here for 40 years and she won’t stay during fire season anymore,” Jean said. “How do we fix it so they’re not afraid anymore?”
There is no easy answer. Kira Hoffman, a wildfire expert at University of British Columbia, said that while that B.C. is most at risk of devastation from wildfires, the whole country should be paying attention.
“We’re also getting into unsuppressible wildfire, so we actually can’t stop them … And that is quite scary, I think, for a lot of people.”
Damian Asher does not live in fear of the fire’s return. The Fort McMurray fire department captain was one of many who went face to face with the fire in 2016, and later wrote a book about it.
He doesn’t believe the Fort McMurray fire was unprecedented and says it was a normal part of a forest’s regrowth and life cycle. He says that the area was due for a blaze of this size because there hasn’t been one like it in nearly 100 years.
“A lot of these areas where we’re getting these fires, we’ve stopped the 10-year and the 50-year cycle (of burning), so it’s inevitable that the 100-year cycle is going to happen,” Asher said.
While it’s true that forests experience semiregular burning, which renews vegetation, scientists say the overall trend shows climate change is driving more extreme weather and accelerating ecological devastation on a massive scale.
There is a “pretty broad agreement” among scientists that climate change is causing snow to melt earlier, creating longer, hotter and drier summers, says David Scott, an expert in the effects of wildfire on soils and watersheds at the University of British Columbia.
“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.
A study published this month reported that the heat dome that caused record-breaking temperatures in Alberta and B.C. last year was among the most extreme heatwaves recorded on the planet since the 1960s. Nearly 600 people died in Canada from the heat, with nearly 250 of those perishing on a single day.
The study further reported that, in a worst-case scenario, heatwaves of that magnitude could have a one-in-six chance of happening every year in western North America by 2080.
One long-term trend that scientists are paying attention to is the overall area burned annually. There was once a time where the country would consistently see about 2.5 million hectares of area burned. Since 2013, it’s increased to about three to four million hectares annually, said Richard Carr, a fire research analyst with the Canadian Forest Service.
“At the same time we’re not seeing that many years anymore with very small areas burned. Historically, in between those big fire years, you’d probably have five or six years with not much activity,” Carr said. “We’re not seeing those periods (as much). It’s more consistent.”
Asher said he doesn’t believe climate change is directly driving more frequent or more intense wildfires. Instead, he points to factors such as how the floor of the boreal forest in northern Alberta is littered with downed trees, which fuels the fires. This has accumulated as a result of current fire-suppression techniques, Scott said.
“We’ve complicated things because we’ve in the past done such a good job of putting out fires that the fuel load is building up,” Scott said. “And that means that when we do get a wildfire season, we’re kind of sitting on a tinderbox.”
There are ongoing efforts to clear the surrounding forest of fuel and Asher believes if there’s more work like that done, devastating fires of the 2016 magnitude can be avoided.
“Will it happen in Fort McMurray? Probably not in my lifetime. Could it happen some months in another community? Most definitely,” he said.
Still, the firefighter of 21 years thought it was a good idea to build his new home far away from any trees.
“I’m kind of out in an open field now. So I don’t worry about losing my place again,” Asher said. “Not to a natural disaster.”
Cleaning up forest floors of fuel is one of the most effective ways of preventing fires from reaching the point where they cause widespread devastation, Hoffman says.
She said while the picture may look bleak, she’s feeling hopeful that governments and communities are looking at different methods of preventing wide-scale wildfires.
“I think things are starting to really shift,” Hoffman said. “And it only took three of the worst wildfire seasons on record in the last five years.”
People need to come to grip with the reality of climate change, she added.
“It is inevitable that we are going to lose whole communities. And 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.”
Bosch isn’t quite so sure. 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. And while it sometimes feels risky living in the middle of a forest, there’s nowhere she’d rather be.
That is, unless The Beast returns.
“I couldn’t do it again … (but) I kind of just feel like everything’s happening for a reason. If it’s climate change, maybe we need to change our ways, it’s possible,” she said. “It still wouldn’t stop me from living here, though.”
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