Fort McMurray Fires: A reminder that we need to prepare for the impacts of climate change

Fort McMurray can be a wake up call—a touchstone that reminds us how critically important it is to invest in preparing for (and even preventing) the next event, and all those that will follow.

By Aaron Cosbey on May 11, 2016

My heart goes out to the devastated residents of Fort McMurray.

Their plight hit me hard because, like many residents of interior BC, I spent a large part of last summer with a box of essentials packed in the garage, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. As I watched the disaster unfold in Alberta, I fought a terrible nagging question: is this the new normal?

It may be. While we cannot immediately link the Fort McMurray fire or most individual events to climate change, we know that climate change in Western Canada will likely mean—has meant—drier hotter summers, and more frequent, more destructive fires. The details differ around the world—if you’re in Southern Africa it's crushing multi-year drought; if you’re in South Asia, it's violent storm surges and the interrupted monsoon—but the big picture is the same: more extreme weather events and greater climatic uncertainty.

Having worked for over 15 years as a policy analyst on climate issues, I know we need to work to change the way we are contributing to climate change through the generation of greenhouse gases, from the personal to the international levels. That's critical.

But we also need to admit that we have failed, and will fail, to insulate ourselves from climate change. The greenhouse gases we emit reside in the atmosphere for decades. Even if we achieve the goals agreed upon in the Paris Agreement last year, we will only limit the impacts on future generations. So we need to adapt and make our communities more resilient.

As a city councillor in Rossland—a small community in interior BC, surrounded by forest—I've worked on that battlefront as well. For years, Rossland has been systematically clearing fuel (flammable forest material) around the city's perimeter, with funding from BC’s Strategic Wildfire Prevention Initiative. With support from the Columbia Basin Trust, we led a process to identify the city's key vulnerabilities and needs in adapting to climate change impacts—from disaster preparedness to economic diversification—and built key lessons into our Official Community Plan. We are currently working with the Trust to become a pilot case for civic indicators of climate adaptation and resilience.

These kinds of initiatives take time, money and energy. But the cost of prevention seems like a bargain compared to the cost of the cure. BC’s Slave Lake fire in 2011 racked up damages of CAD 742 million; the Alberta floods in 2013 forced insurance payouts of almost CAD 2 billion; and Fort McMurray could top CAD 9 billion. Those figures don't begin to count the monumental human costs.

Good can come even from the most terrible tragedies. Fort McMurray’s fate has brought forth a flood of support from Canada and beyond as people band together in common cause. The heroic actions of the firefighters on site managed to avert what could have been a much worse disaster. Crisis brings out the best of the human spirit.

But I hope that Fort McMurray can also be a wake up call—a touchstone that reminds us how critically important it is to invest in preparing for (and even preventing) the next event, whether due to fire, drought or flood, and all those that will follow.

Aaron Cosbey is a policy analyst with IISD who works on climate change and energy, subsidies, green industrial policy and trade and investment law. 

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