Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change

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The New Yorker

Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change

A helicopter flies past a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, on Wednesday. The blaze has spread through an area covering more than three hundred square miles. (Photo: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press / AP)

The town of Fort McMurray, some four hundred miles north of Calgary, in Canada, grew up very quickly on both sides of the Athabasca River. During the nineteen-seventies, the population of the town tripled, and since then it has nearly tripled again. All this growth has been fuelled by a single activity: extracting oil from a Florida-sized formation known as the tar sands. When the price of oil was high, there was so much currency coursing through Fort McMurray’s check-cashing joints that the town was dubbed “Fort McMoney.”

Now Fort McMurray is burning. A forest fire that began to the southwest of the town on Sunday has forced the entire population—almost ninety thousand people—to evacuate. On Wednesday, Alberta’s provincial government declared a state of emergency. By yesterday, more than fifteen hundred buildings had been destroyed and the blaze had spread through an area covering more than three hundred square miles. It was burning so hot that that it was easily able to jump major rivers. One Canadian official described the fire as “catastrophic.” Another called it a “multi-headed monster.”

No one knows exactly how the fire began—whether it was started by a lightning strike or by a spark provided by a person—but it’s clear why the blaze, once underway, raged out of control so quickly. Alberta experienced an unusually dry and warm winter. Precipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; two days ago, the thermometer hit ninety, which is about thirty degrees higher than the region’s normal May maximum. “You hate to use the ​cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told the CBC.

Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling. In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the last decade. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, recently told the Times.

“You can say it couldn’t get worse,” Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the last three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service’s scientists project that it’s likely to “double again by midcentury.” A group of scientists who analyzed lake cores from Alaska to obtain a record of forest fires over the last ten thousand years found that in recent decades, blazes were both unusually frequent and unusually severe. “This extreme combination suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity,” they concluded.

All of this brings us to what one commentator referred to as “the black irony” of the fire that has destroyed most of Fort McMurray.

The town exists to get at the tar sands, and the tar sands produce a particularly carbon-intensive form of fuel. (The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is, at its heart, a fight over whether the U.S. should be encouraging —or, if you prefer, profiting from—the exploitation of the tar sands.) The more carbon that goes into the atmosphere, the warmer the world will get, and the more likely we are to see devastating fires like the one now raging.

To raise environmental concerns in the midst of human tragedy is to risk the charge of insensitivity. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alluded to this danger at a recent news conference: “Any time we try to make a political argument out of one particular disaster, I think there’s a bit of a shortcut that can sometimes not have the desired outcome.” And certainly it would be wrong to blame the residents of Fort McMurray for the disaster that has befallen them. As Andrew Weaver, a Canadian climate scientist who is a Green Party member of British Columbia’s provincial legislature, noted, “The reality is we are all consumers of products that come from oil.”

But to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense. We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we’ve all contributed to the latest inferno. We need to own up to our responsibility and then we need to do something about it. The fire next time is one that we’ve been warned about, and that we’ve all had a hand in starting.

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She is the author of  The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit”; “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” which is now available in paperback; and “The Sixth Extinction,” for which she won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

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