Fleeing Fort McMurray... for Good?

Locals speak with pride about 'resilience' -- tested now like never before.

By Mychaylo Prystupa 5 May 2016 |

Mychaylo Prystupa is a veteran journalist with a focus on energy and politics. Find his stories for The Tyee here.

Fort McMurray is empty of people and ablaze, fresh catastrophe hitting the capital of a region reeling from the plummeting price of oil. If the town and its oil sands industry are to recover, it will be because people like Cordell Sacrey maintain their faith in the place and invest their lives in rebuilding its future.

Sacrey is an Enbridge tank maintenance technician who migrated to Fort Mac from Newfoundland and put down roots. In a barroom interview in March, Sacrey told The Tyee that Fort McMurrayers like himself were "resilient."

He believed himself a Fort McMurrayer, he said, because he was a permanent employee and therefore different from the "fly-in, fly-out" temporary workers losing their jobs as oil sands companies slowed extraction of their product, bitumen steamed from land scraped clear of northern Alberta's forests.

But now those forests are burning furiously, and Sacrey is cooped up in in a hotel in Lac la Biche, a neighbouring hamlet where thousands more Fort McMurray residents are finding refuge. Reached again yesterday by phone, Sacrey was nearly speechless.

"I wouldn't know how to put it in words. When we drove out last night, there was smoke and fire. You couldn't see."

Sacrey considers himself lucky. His pipeline employer has paid for his accommodations. Other evacuees are on stretchers in emergency shelters like the one at the local arena. Had he changed his mind about the resiliency of his community, now under so many stresses? In a word: no. But big questions remain.

"There's going to be a lot of people that will have to rebuild, and that's going to be a big test right now. What do you do? How do you rebuild? Hopefully the support and the insurance will be in place for them."

Some see irony in Canada's oil sands mecca getting struck by an extreme weather tragedy. "Wildfire rips through Canadian City, Forcing 80,000 to Flee. This is Climate Change." proclaims a headline on Slate, a widely read U.S.-based political news site.

Green leader Elizabeth May was one of Canada's politicians who went there, saying "of course" the blaze was linked to global warming emissions, though she later retracted.

'I see blue skies in Alberta'

But the fire has not changed Sacrey's mind about Fort McMurray, and he sees no irony. "If scientists want to talk about emissions, talk about the emissions that come from ten million cars in Toronto," he said.

He says outsiders have unfairly targeted Fort McMurray's oil sector without looking at themselves and their own consumption. "I see blue skies when I come to Alberta. In Toronto -- I didn't know what a blue sky was," said Sacrey, who used to live in Ontario.

Now all of Canada is watching the flames lick at Fort McMurray on TV, with many considering ways they can help. Prime Minister Trudeau said citizens can support the town's residents with donations to the Canadian Red Cross which "is stepping up as it does in situations like this, and any donations or support or reaching out to them will be obviously appreciated."

"Fortunes lost: Newfoundlanders on Fort McMurray's decline" -- a video prepared for The Tyee by Mychaylo Prystupa.

But once the emergency subsides, how Fort Mac will rebuild remains a major question. The Alberta NDP government, faced with stiff fiscal pressures already, recently softened its election stance against the Northern Gateway pipeline. It also stepped up efforts to reach a deal with B.C. to allow the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion if approved by the Trudeau cabinet late this year.

And the Notley government, struggling to meet its budget without increasing oil royalties amidst the price plummet, slashed the wildfire fighting budget by $15 million this year.

The inferno has prompted the province to call for a state of emergency.

It is an immediate emergency piled onto one slowly unfolding -- a once booming region suddenly forced to reimagine its place in the global energy economy given that bitumen extraction is more expensive, more investment intensive, and more greenhouse gas emissions producing than most other ways of getting oil out of the ground.

What do the Alberta and Canadian governments owe Fort McMurray and committed oil sands workers like Cordell Sacrey and what new promises, what new pact, can help them imagine a bright future?

Unemployment in the region hit a record high of 9.8 per cent in March, and tensions are high. Layoffs have been described in the thousands, forcing many to make the painful decision to leave town even before the fires caused, in Fort McMurray, the largest evacuation in Alberta's history.

Fort McMurray blazes along the freeway. Video posted to YouTubeTuesday by Jason Edmondson.

On Tuesday morning, the city's mayor Melissa Blake engaged in a bit of dark humour that seemed to signal a resilient sense of irony. She noted her government's evacuation order forcing citizens to flee the smoke clogged city was issued on World Asthma Day. Curbside recycling, she added, would not be picked up. "Please forgive us. We have challenges in that area because of the fire." 

By 10 p.m. Tuesday, fire officials described the conditions as worsening to "explosive," and 88,000 citizens clogged the highway out of town in a bumper-to-bumper mass exodus, towering blazes just metres from the freeway.

How many of those who fled will return to Fort McMurray to make a permanent life will have much to do with resilience, yes, and also human adaptability to two powerful trends uprooting lives around the globe: the changing climate, and the volatile price of carbon.

If you have a story about the blaze, or have photos or video, please tweet it @mychaylo.  [Tyee]

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