The forest fires near Fort McMurray, AB, that started on May 2, are finally abating as press time nears at the end of the month. The fire, dubbed “The Beast,” blazed virtually unchecked for three weeks fanned by wind and dry, hot weather. In the first week, almost 90,000 people were forced from their homes and about 2,000 buildings in the town were leveled. At press time, more than 525,000 hectares had been consumed. With luck, the return and rebuilding will have started when you see this.
The Beast was unpredictable. Fires spread almost unchecked toward the Saskatchewan border, leaving behind blackened residential neighbourhoods next door to those that were untouched. The pictures of devastation are staggering. It will be months, even years, before life returns to pre-fire normal for those who go back to rebuild. Total damages may be as much as $9 billion, outstripping even Hurricane Katrina.
The Canadian mining industry has been at the mercy of forest fires since the Porcupine gold rush in northern Ontario. It is the nature of forests to burn occasionally.
It is also the nature of mining camps to be located in remote, usually forested regions. Fire ripped through the Porcupine camp in 1908, and again in 1911, the region burned.
If The Beast teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that modern communications, monitoring and transportation can save lives. No people died in the Fort McMurray blaze, and only two traffic deaths occurred during evacuation.
Of particular interest is the fate of Alberta’s oil sands producers. When the fires first threatened the town, employees and contract workers were sent to join their families and concentrate on their safety. Production was cut as workers left job sites and dealt with the mandatory evacuation. As the fires moved to the east, companies made plans to return to normal bitumen production.
But no sooner had some companies announced reopening plans than the fires changed direction and moved to the north. People who were originally relocated from town to various labour camps were re-evacuated. Finally on May 23, emergency services agreed to the phased re-entry to several camps north and south of town.
Even though the fire has faded from the headlines, the need to give, remains.
In our opinion, a donation to the Canadian Red Cross remains the best way to help. A hundred years from now, people will remember The Beast of Fort McMurray.