The leader of the federal Green Party has placed a forest fire that’s devastated Fort McMurray in the context of climate change.
“The fact that the forest-fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event,” Elizabeth May said speaking to reporters in Ottawa. “Very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation and it is, as we saw in the quote from one of the firefighters, it’s a firestorm.
“It jumped a highway, it jumped a river,” she continued. “It’s a devastating tragedy right now and I think our focus is always on the right now: to think for the firefighters, for first responders, for people who are losing their homes. It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”
On May 3, more than 80,000 people were forced to flee their homes after a mandatory evacuation order was issued for all of Fort McMurray.
During the night that followed, the town in northeastern Alberta was hit hard by the wildfire.
Today (May 4), CBC News reported that four neighbourhoods suffered a “serious loss” of buildings. Those are Abasand, Beacon Hill, Waterways, and Centennial Trailer Park. Six other areas recorded “some loss”.
Later in the morning, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said that more than 1,600 structures were destroyed.
May is the B.C. MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands. Her comments on Fort McMurray and climate change were met with a storm of criticism on social media. Many people argued that with lives in danger and homes destroyed, it was not the time to discuss the environment. But May's assertion that climate change may be partly to blame for the forest fire is supported by reports and threat assessments drafted by various levels of government. (May also noted one weather event cannot be directly attributed to climate change.)
For example, a November 2014 information note prepared for B.C.’s minister of environment warns that for the northwest region of North America, climate change will mean longer and hotter summers.
More recently, a mandate letter that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drafted for Canada’s Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness mentions “the threat of climate change” among challenges for which the country must prepare.
In B.C., the month of May has already seen temperature records shattered across the province. This follows the warmest April ever recorded in Vancouver.
Located in northeast Alberta, Fort McMurray can largely be considered a boom town that thrived on the expansion of the nearby oil sands. Since the price of oil began a rapid decline in 2014, the town has fallen on increasingly hard times.
When the forest fire that’s struck Fort McMurray began, it was 32 degrees Celsius in that region. Authorities have pointed to those unusually high temperatures coupled with dry conditions as contributing causes of the fire.
"The worst of the fire is not over," Alberta Agriculture and Forestry manager Bernie Schmitte told CBC News. "We're still faced with very high temperatures, low relative humidity and some strong winds."
Since Notley was elected to lead Alberta in May 2015, she has tried to bring voters around to support her NDP government’s plan to combat climate change and to begin reigning in carbon emissions associated with the oil sands.
A December 2015 poll conducted by Mainstreet Research found that 66 percent of Albertans oppose that plan. Outside of the province’s two urban centres—in places like Fort McMurray—that number rose to 72 percent.
The Fort McMurray evacuation is the largest such order issued in response to a wildfire in Alberta’s history.
In 2013, more than 100,000 people had to evacuate Calgary and surrounding areas in response to a flood. That disaster left large sections of the city’s downtown core underwater and caused more than $5 billion in damages.