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Fort McMurray's Fire Teaches Us a Lesson

Hope that your city reacts like this when disasters come its way.

Crawford Kilian 4 May

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The summer-like spring that western Canada has been basking in showed its ugly side in northeast Alberta on Tuesday afternoon.

Fort McMurray, the overcrowded bedroom community for the oilsands, suddenly faced a fire that threatened its very existence. A minor nuisance exploded in minutes into a life-threatening attack on 80,000 people.

For some tree-hugging, pipeline-hating Vancouver hippies, that might seem like a spot of bother in downtown Mordor. But in fact Fort Mac has just shown us how to cope with the disasters we will see all too many of in coming years -- whether fire, flood, or earthquake.

The fire was soon trending on Twitter with the hashtag #yymfire, and I followed it closely. If the electrons squandered on "thoughts and prayers" and instructions to "stay safe" had only been raindrops, the fire would have been drowned at once.

But here and there, tweets alerted the world to the progress of the fire or the need for help for a specific person stuck downtown. Video clips showed big SUVs and pickups struggling to get past burning trees and exploding gas stations.

And what emerged from Twitter was a portrait of a small, remote city of 80,000, over a year into a serious collapse of its industry, which was evacuating with remarkable patience and good order. The hospital was evacuated -- and at least one of the evacuation centres themselves. So was the SPCA.

By 6:20 p.m. Alberta time, when most of its families would have been sitting down to dinner, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo ordered the complete evacuation of Fort McMurray.

And it happened. But as horrifying as it certainly is, the Fort McMurray fire offers, in at least one way, an encouraging sign for the future.

Grace under pressure

In the space of two or three hours, Fort McMurray showed the country (and the world) how to do it. It was a city-sized example of Hemingway's definition of courage: grace under pressure. Even as the city's radio and TV stations shut down to save their people, social media like Twitter spread the word on what was going on and what to do next.

And people did it. Highway 63 was jammed with monstrous gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups, but people were still moving. (One pickup carried an ATV as a kind of lifeboat.) Fire trucks sometimes had to use the sidewalks, but they got through. When evacuation centres themselves had to be evacuated, it happened smoothly.

As of Tuesday evening, no one had been killed or even injured. A lot of people were going to spend a night sleeping rough in their SUVs or some parking lot. Considering the scale of the disaster, Fort McMurray came out smelling not of smoke but of roses.

The rest of us need to take notes and ask questions, because Fort McMurray is sure to be on our own final exam -- especially those of us in the Lower Mainland.

Hundreds of thousands of us live on the dangerous interface between forests and houses made of forests. If a blaze on Mount Seymour or Cypress started dropping firebombs on the million-dollar homes downhill, would we respond as calmly and decisively as the people of Fort McMurray?

We'd better. And we'd do better if we all had the sense to stock bug-out bags near the front or back door, backpacks stuffed with water bottles, clothes, food, some basic tools, cash, and a thumb drive with all our basic documents scanned onto it.

We've been warned before: We watched Kelowna burn in 2003, and a good chunk of the central coast a year later. We've had Fraser River floods and we know a major earthquake is coming.

If we think it can't happen here in downtown Paradise, we're in deep delusion.  [Tyee]

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