Alberta wildfire reminds us of how quickly disaster hits

Keith Norbury
July 18, 2016
By Keith Norbury

The wildfire that struck Fort McMurray Alberta in early May and forced the evacuation of the entire city of nearly 90,000 people caught the world’s attention.

Close to home, it certainly caught the attention of those in the thick of it, who had to flee for their lives. But the enormity of the fire and the subsequent chaos made it the lead story on newscasts around the world.

The fire also made big news because evacuees captured videos of their flight through the inferno, which gave the impression that they really were descending into the fires of hell. That the fire itself did not cost a human life — although two teenagers were killed in a vehicle crash during the evacuation — is nothing short of miraculous. But it’s also a testament to the people of Fort McMurray who, despite having every excuse to panic, kept their cool enough to find safety in a more or less orderly fashion.

For those of us who observed the spectacle from afar, it is a sobering reminder of how quickly a disaster can unfold, and how each one is unique. Canada is covered in forests with the potential to burn uncontrollably. But that a fire the size of the Fort McMurray blaze should happen so early May only added to the shock. At that time of year, one would be more likely to expect snow in northern Alberta than a conflagration.

It’s not just fire that poses a threat. As became apparent in southern Alberta in 2013, heavy rains can also cause excessive damage and loss of life. The 2013 flood, which inundated downtown Calgary, killed four people and caused insurable damages estimated at $1.7 billion. At the time, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history, although the Fort McMurray fire will very likely surpass that.

Bigger disasters, though, loom in the future — if only because the population, especially in urban centres, keeps growing. The growth also means more buildings and infrastructure that can be damaged, although Fort McMurray was fortunate that the fire didn’t reach its downtown.

Coastal B.C. cities like Vancouver and Victoria probably won’t be so lucky should a megathrust earthquake strike the region. Seismologists are certain that such a quake is inevitable. They just can’t say whether it will happen tomorrow or 300 years from now.

When the big one shakes B.C.’s lower mainland, residents might not have much time to get out of harm’s way, particularly if a giant tsunami accompanies the tremor. Fort McMurray residents only had one highway out of town. Victoria and Vancouver residents might not have any if bridges and overpasses collapse. Then again, Fort McMurray residents had to flee because the fire threatened their homes. In the event of a quake, Vancouverites might be better off staying put.

In any case, there is a lot that all Canadians can learn from the Fort McMurray disaster. Not the least of those is that neighbours generally are neighbourly in times of crisis.

Another valuable lesson is that it helps to be prepared, which is something that is all too easy to procrastinate about. Having emergency supplies on hand — such as fresh water, snacks, flashlights, and batteries — and keeping them replenished is a good idea. The last part is the hard part because it’s too easy to forget about.

A simple habit of topping up fuel tanks in vehicles can make a huge difference in a disaster. A half tank of gas will take you a lot further than one that’s nearly empty. In a similar spirit, keep phones charged or, better yet, have an emergency charger on hand.

Put some savings away for a rainy day. That can be tough to do for individuals and businesses during trying economic times, of course. So it pays to think about it when times are good — which often happen to be those occasions when disaster seems least likely to happen.

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to extend it to those in need. Recovering from this disaster is going to take a long time. The community of Slave Lake, Alta., is only now returning to normalcy after a devastating wildfire in 2011, noted Rob O’Beirn, vice-president of oilsands for Sterling Crane, during a tribute to Fort McMurray at the recent annual conference of the Crane Rental Association in Calgary.

The Fort McMurray fire destroyed about five times as many homes as the Slave Lake fire did. So the rebuilding of Fort McMurray will no doubt take even longer than the five years it has taken with Slave Lake. But there is also no doubt that Fort McMurray will rebuild and become an even stronger community for it. The response of its citizens to the crisis is evidence of that.

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