Fort McMurray fire

Smoky River Regional Economic Development

Dan Dibbelt

It was inevitable.

Sooner or late it was inevitable that a large urban centre in northern Alberta would be devastated by a catastrophic forest fire.

We have had forewarnings. The Zama City fire followed by the Slave Lake fire should have been all the warning we needed to prepare ourselves for another major evacuation

The Fort McMurray fire is the most extreme example of what can happen when mother nature makes up the rules. Many people may blame global warming, some blame forest fire suppression protocol and others just chalk it up to a dry warm winter and a hot dry spring.

But all were equally horrified by the televised videos of convoys of vehicles snaking slowly down Highway 63 through walls of fire. The biggest challenge facing evacuees was the fact that there was just one road out of Fort McMurray. While the highway winds its way north, it doesn’t lead anywhere, other than further into the forest.

For the residents of Fort McMurray, the challenge of re-establishing their lives in their burnt down community lays ahead. And no doubt the Province of Alberta and Canada must step forward with resources to ensure the city is rebuilt.

I am assuming that the Alberta government, despite its leaders comment about “embarrassing cousin no one wants to talk about” in reference to our oil industry, will want to rebuild Fort McMurray. Perhaps the fire and the devastation it caused will give the government the excuse it needs to deal with the oilsands issue once and for all.

But I suspect the financial impact of the slowdown in oil production, will awaken many people to just how much we as a province and a country rely on northern Alberta and no doubt Fort McMurray will be rebuilt. But rebuilding the City without addressing an underlying issue facing a number of northern communities would be reckless. Residents living in northern Alberta’s resource communities need to know that their lives are as respected as their southern urban counterparts.

For more than 20 years, northern Alberta has advocated for an east west connector, a road connecting the Fort McMurray/Wood Buffalo region and the Peace River region. Initially the road was intended to link the oilsands regions of Alberta.

Additionally, the road corridor could lead to potential opportunity as a communication, rail, and infrastructure corridor.

The east-west corridor, as is obvious now, has another major benefit, an alternate route for residents on either side to evacuate in the event of another such fire. The majority of the connector road already exists, much of it as a winter road – only accessible in winter when its frozen. The Alberta government has already done much of the planning and technical work on the road, but that is where it has stalled and its no where in its 20-year transportation strategy.

The government has a tendency to invest infrastructure dollars where the people and the votes live and so we see ring roads and light rail transit popping up in the large urbans.

No doubt allowing people in large urbans to get to and from work everyday is important. It is however no more important than ensuring northern residents never become trapped in another wildfire.

The forest fires and evacuations of Slave Lake in 2011, Zama City in 2012 and now in Fort McMurray make it clear that these fires are no longer anomalies but realities and should be expected.

Presently fires near the Town of High Level and in Clear Hills County have the potential to grow and lead to further evacuations.

We can blame global warming, fire suppression practices or the Thunder Gods. Wherever the blame may lie does not change the reality.

Rebuilding Fort McMurray without a commitment from the provincial and federal government to commit to the building of an alternate route out is irresponsible.

Likewise, this fire should be the wake up call for both levels of government to assess all northern communities for evacuation protocols and ensure no Albertan need suffer a similar harrowing experience.

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