Possible Lessons from the destruction of Fort McMurray

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The Fort McMurray wildfire uprooted 88,000 residents of the area. When it is safe to do so, some of these people will return to run the industrial installations that extract bitumen from the neighbouring tar sands. For those who don’t, their immediate future will be uncertain.  They are Canada’s first climate change refugees.

Ironically, only a week ago Sally Jewell, the US Secretary of the Interior, warned that Canada had better be prepared for climate refugees.  She was then referring to  the Inuit inhabitants of Arctic communities that are put at risk by melting permafrost, the result of warming twice as great as the world’s average.

In her remarks, Ms Jewell commented:

“We can’t turn this around. We can stem the increase in temperature, we can stem some of the effect, perhaps, if we act on climate. But the changes are under way and they are very rapid.”

These comments are equally applicable to wildfires!

If Governments can give assurances that the risk of a second wildfire is much reduced, many Fort McMurray refugees will choose to return “home” to live a normal life in a re-built Fort McMurray.

Reducing the risk of wildfires will be costly.  The steps to be taken could include:

  • continued revisions of forest management and fire-fighting techniques,
  • a required separation of rural communities from forested areas in which they are located,
  • investment in more and better fire-fighting equipment,
  • training of many more fire rangers and/or fire fighters, and
  • development of an ability to mobilize these resources quickly in any part of Canada.

Building an infrastructure to fight wildfires in the Northern parts of the Western Provinces, the Yukon and the other Territories will be expensive. Add to these costs to the $9 billion that is the estimate of the physical damage to Fort McMurray caused by this wildfire.

No one can make a final estimate of the costs to be incurred for this infrastructure. If global warming continues at its present pace, the costs of such adaptation efforts will go up.

Once people recognize that the financial costs resulting from climate change are substantial, they will be more likely to accept the immediate need for limiting further global warming.

Perhaps the Fort McMurray wildfire will persuade sceptics that our future well-being requires action on climate change today.

(Fort McMurray is the most destructive impact of climate change, but – on a world scale – it mirrors what is happening in many other countries that Canadians don’t know about.  Read Dale Marshall’s commentary:  “I mourn for Fort McMurray”.)

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