Forging a Nation in Fort McMurray

Our national epic tells us that Canada was forged as a nation at Vimy Ridge. Surging up the hill and holding it against the Germans in World War I showed that Canadian soldiers could fight better than the rest. In an imperial world, when we were fighting for Britain and the King, we embraced Vimy  to symbolize our emergence from colony to nation. It was a valid symbol for the 20th century.

The devastation in Fort McMurray and the response to it, both locally and across the nation, suggests new iconography for the 21st century. Newspaper images are of raging fires looming over roads and buildings, helicopters flying in red skies among clouds of smoke, burned out homes in Beacon Hill, convoys of cars threading their way down Highway 63 to Edmonton and south from the northern work camps. More than 80,000 people evacuated, 2400 structures destroyed. 

Saturday’s Globe and Mail had a two-page special with maps showing the origin of MWF-009 (its technical name) and how it had spread day by day during “A Week of Hell.” The statistics in Monday’s Globe are stark: 1,610 square kilometres burning by Sunday; 36 separate fires, 3 out of control; 1500 firefighters in the province; 36,000 people registered for Red Cross help.

The headlines scream “Catastrophic,” “A national disaster unlike any other,” “Alberta declares state of emergency,” “Feeling Fort Mac’s Pain,” “Trudeau will offer ‘total support’ to the province,” “Albertans rush to aid fire evacuees.” “Fort McMurray residents ‘will rebuild.’” Total strangers open their homes, garages and trailers as a temporary refuge. Volunteers tend to pets, provide tons of supplies, cook community meals, offer places to park. Firefighters, fire-fighting equipment, water bombers, and helicopters from across the province and across the country flood in to fight “The Beast” (as the fire is now called). The federal government offers to double all contributions to the Canadian Red Cross for Alberta fire relief. The Alberta government does the same. By Sunday, the Red Cross fund has swelled to $54 million.

Among the donors are the people of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, themselves devastated by an exploding railroad car in 2013. Their local MP and mayor emphasize that, “Three years ago it was our population that was struck down by tragedy, and all of Canada mobilized itself for us. Now, it’s our turn to support this community.” And so it is: Canadians have always rallied to support their fellow Canadians in times of trial. During ice storms in Montreal or Toronto, flooding in Calgary and in Winnipeg, forest fires in Slave Lake and in Kelowna, the resilience of Canadians has been tested and never found wanting.

That a firestorm has destroyed the heart of the Alberta oil sands affects us all. The locals who have carved a modern community out of the boreal forest in the far north are living everyone’s worst nightmare. New immigrants who settled in Fort McMurray find themselves in yet another “war zone,” this time against the forces of Nature. Oil production in the area has ground to a halt, raising worldwide oil prices, and throwing shell-shocked oil workers from Vancouver Island to Cape Breton out of work. The personal, psychological and economic cost of the devastation is as yet unknown.

It strikes me that this is the Canadian condition. We live with these disasters, and with the potential for similar disasters, because Nature in our country is large, powerful and close at hand. It is the motif of our existence. When locals remain resolute and determined to rebuild, and when the rest of us rally to help, we are forging ties between our regions and creating a stronger nation with all the effort. In the 21st Century, Fort McMurray and all it represents could well become our new Vimy Ridge. I can think of no better symbol for the challenges of the century which lie ahead.

Donations of cash (the most useful response at this stage) can be made on the Canadian Red Cross “Alberta Fire” webpage. Individuals can make a $5 donation by texting RED CROSS to 30333. To all our family, friends and everyone else in Alberta, please know that we are with you and have got your back.

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  1. Bill

    Good article Marion but two comments :
    Canada has a history of “stand together” and resolving our problems without outside help ( nation -building). Everyone donates to CRC

    Not sure the comparison to Vimy Ridge is appropriate. No human lpss of life at Fort Mac( but there sure could have been)

  2. Justus

    Actually, from what I can see oil prices haven’t risen since the problems at Fort McMurray, which predate the fire, started to reduce the flow of bitumen.
    Within the last 4 years we have discovered that when we exploit the resources of the boreal forest (Fort McMurray, Slave Lake) and log the trees on our highlands (Calgary floods) and transport oil (Lac Megantic) and build unsustainable mine infrastructure (Mt Polley) disasters can and will happen. In all those cases measures could have been taken to reduce the risks dramatically; in all those cases we effectively chose, invariable for financial reasons, not to. And those are just the examples I can recall off the top.
    We’ll get to repeat these lessons regularly, I suspect; let’s hope our future “bonding” as a nation doesn’t start to suffer from disaster fatigue.

  3. Marvin and Donna in Calgary, Alberta

    Thank you for this blog – very interesting and it will help Alberta recover from this awful disaster. Everyone caring and concerned will get Alberta through the next few months or years to come.

  4. Ian

    Yes- but it would say more about our country and our people if we could say we better planned both how to reduce the negative effects of such events and also to take actions that will reduce the intensity and frequency of events that are at least partially a product of environmental change including climate effects and other natural processes.

    We need to seriously look to continue to advance our science and engineering, as well as our capacity to respond to emergencies. We need to be more proactive in how we plan and design our communities and infrastructure. This is more than just what real estate people talk about- “Location, Location Location”. It does include how we site, adequate and at times redundancy in infrastructure, materials and design, and was seen in Fort McMurray, how we pan for movement including evacuations amongst other issues. It also includes how we plan today for infrastructure that can adapt to future needs such as needed retrofits while easily facilitating the “plugging in” of emerging technologies. As an example wouldn’t it be great if we could easily adapt structures to not only be more energy efficient but also to take advantage of opportunities such as solar power without the need to reorient and rebuild. And finally it means we need to better design our communities so they met our human, social and cultural needs- what some describe as “the soft sciences”.

    How do we do this? It means amongst other things to continue to improve standards and codes of practice such as building codes so they respond to today’s and future needs. It means we need to be imaginative in scanning what the future needs will be, not just the needs and issues of yesterday and today.

    In a perfect future this might be possible for new communities but we also need to figure out how to bring on line the existing stock. We all live somewhere and most of our infrastructure is far from even meeting the latest standards.

    We need to responsibly put limits on ourselves including our own expectations and behaviours. Why do we build on flood plains or up against what we know will be tinder boxes. Or why do we irresponsibly continue to use fires just for the aesthetic pleasure of a “campfire” – how many wildfires were ignited by people in the last month while the Fort McMurray event was front page news? And even more significant how many more will be started while the fire continues to burn but the story falls from the front page.

    As for forested land we need to better manage them to reduce the risk of conflagrations through better forestry and wild land management which in many cases will involve utilizing natural processes such as fire to reduced fuel loading and forest regeneration. We need to recognize that the Boreal forest like some other ecosystems is fire dependent and we need to manage as much as we can manage natural systems, this system accordingly to let it thrive while safeguarding our interests. In the boreal forest we could learn form the practices by indigenous peoples that used early spring fires to both help fire proof settlements and to also modify vegetation to attract game.

    As for the size of this fire I suspect when all the numbers come in this may be the most expensive in terms of money but it certainly won’t be the biggest Canadian wildfire fire so far the most damaging in terms of other metrics. Think about the Miramichi Fire of October 1825 as an early example during European settling of this land as an example.

    We also need to rapidly get our emissions of greenhouse gases under control to lessen the severity of extreme events that have at least a climate or weather contribution.

    On the human side, this past week has shown the spirit and resolution of Canadians in the face of adversity but it won’t be the last opportunity to respond to catastrophic events. We know we have other equally or more devastating disasters in our future- think as an example of the future rupture of the the Cascadia Fault off the west coast, an event like future large fires which are all certainties.

    I would like to think how we prepare for these as much as how we respond defines Canada and Canadians.


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