Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change
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.”
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 past 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.