Christopher is completing a PhD in the social dimensions of resilience at CECHR and Geography at the University of Dundee. For his MSc at the University of Alberta he examined resource-dependent community resilience following industry upheaval. Later, he conducted early scoping fieldwork on youth and wildfire recovery in Slave Lake, Alberta. He has visited both Fort McMurray and Slave Lake.
It is early days yet in the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada, but there are a few things that might be said about the social and ecological context and potential impacts of this unfolding disaster.
For social context, Fort McMurray is officially an ‘urban service area’ located in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and is the main permanent residential, logistics and service hub for the Athabasca Oil Sands (aka Tar Sands) bitumen extraction and distribution industry. Because of this, the city sits at the centre of volatile public, political, and academic discourses on climate change, the future of the Canadian and provincial economy, global energy markets, changes in rural and natural resource economies, pipeline development projects, social and environmental impact assessments, relationships with Indigenous peoples, and Canadian political rhetoric. What happens in and to Fort McMurray has local and global resonance. For a stark example, the wildfire immediately impacted oil prices and production.
Ecologically, Fort McMurray is located within the Earth’s northern belt of boreal forest biome. This region is deeply impacted by climate change and El Niño linked climate and weather events. Warmer winters trigger tree-killing insect infestations Mountain Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) and unseasonable, record setting hot and dry spells, even in Spring. The latter, driven by climate change has been long predicted to create ideal conditions for wildfire, and recent research suggests that northern boreal forests are experiencing burn rates unseen in 10 000 years (±1000 years post-Wisconsin glaciation!). Further, the bitumen extraction technology used in the Oil Sands necessitates the destruction of vast tracts of the boreal forest.
As a colleague from Alberta put it, there is a “terrible symbolism” in a climate induced wildfire destroying the place with an economy central to the production of fossil fuel that produces climate change.
This unavoidable social-ecological backdrop aside, Fort McMurray is immediately a disaster-struck community of people whose lives and livelihoods are profoundly disrupted. While the ongoing rapid evacuation of at least 80 000 people has thankfully resulted in precious few casualties (two people perished in a road accident at the time of writing), the deeper social impacts of the disaster are likely yet to be felt.
Fort McMurray is essentially a rural, remote, natural resource-dependent community with its economic fortune bound to its resource. With the dramatic increase in global oil prices and despite vast reserves, oil sands production is only lucrative over certain price thresholds. With the increase in oil price and corresponding exploitation of oil sands, the population has rapidly quickly since the early 2000s, from about 38 000 to an estimated 80 000 today, largely from people migrating to high-income oil-sector jobs. Housing construction featured in this expansion, and it has mostly been residential neighbourhoods that have been impacted by fire. This does not include the ‘shadow population’ of temporary residents in nearby mobile workcamps in the bitumen extraction areas. Indeed, while it hasn’t been stressed in reporting so far, the availability of beds in workcamps for evacuees is possibly the result of curtailed shadow workforces.
The Fort McMurray region is deeply impacted by the rapid decline in oil prices over the past couple of years, with a corresponding significant rise in unemployment (10.2% in April 2016). Even without climate change, the brutal question of the economic viability and therefore the extent to which it is feasible to rebuild Fort McMurray in the recovery remains outstanding. Some early estimates put the cost to insurers at record-setting C$9 billion (£4.82 billion), which does not include the costs of government response efforts and lost economic activity.
For evacuees (environmental refugees? internally displaced persons?), many of whom arrived during the boom period from elsewhere in Canada (or abroad), this means the impacts of the disaster are really only beginning. Indications that a large number of dwellings have been destroyed, even if critical infrastructure remains intact, suggest that any return can happen only after a major reconstruction effort, which must only occur after insurance claims are settled. In the coming weeks, displaced people without homes will leave emergency relief centres to stay with relatives and friends elsewhere in Canada. The wide dispersal of displaced residents could mean the loss of social cohesion and mutual support integral to community resilience and disaster recovery.
Thus, the longer-term direct impacts of this disaster may be much less visible and limited to individuals and families, rather than ‘community’. These impacts are difficult to address, and will be economic and psychological as lost incomes, homes, and livelihoods disrupt senses of identity, place, and well-being, sometimes for years to come. Research on Hurricane Katrina suggests children maybe hit especially hard.
Socially and politically, a hard reckoning is likely in store that pits the psychological impact of the disaster and emotional desire to rebuild against political, economic and environmental realities and competing narratives.
The challenge is immense for how governments, the public, industry, and most importantly the displaced residents of Fort McMurray collectively navigate the aftermath once the fires stop burning. It will likely define Canada’s future energy and environmental pathways, setting a global benchmark for how a developed country responds to a direct climate-linked disaster in the causal heart of anthropogenic climate change.
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