The government calls it MWF-009.
Darby Allen, the regional fire chief of Wood Buffalo, calls it The Beast.
Regardless of what it’s called the Fort McMurray wildfire is erratic, unpredictable and extremely dangerous.
It was spotted on Sunday May 1; five hundred hectares burning southwest of the city. By Sunday May 8 more than 161,000 hectares were ablaze, 80,000 people were evacuated and the province was in a state of emergency.
The Beast continues to grow. It’s developed its own weather patterns. Wind blows where it wants blow and lightning strikes where it wants to strike. It will continue to grow until it’s extinguished by rain.
The Beast is fearsome, but it’s taught Albertans five remarkable things about themselves and their government.
One: The Government will deliver
When Premier Notley was asked how she intended to deal with wildfires given the reduction in the firefighting budget she said every resource required would be dedicated, “no holds barred”.
She wasn’t kidding!
From the minute Ms Notley declared a state of emergency she’s been working across all departments and with all levels of government, as well as business and non-profit organizations to protect public safety.
The evacuation of Northern Lights hospital is an example. Healthcare workers evacuated 105 patients (73 acute care and 32 continuing care patients including 9 newborns and their moms) to 12 receiving hospitals and care facilities. WestJet provided the planes and Suncor provided the air strip to get it done.
(Healthcare workers completed the evacuation while they themselves were under an evacuation order.)
Twelve evacuee receptions centres have been set up throughout the province. An emergency cash plan of $1,250/adult and $500/dependent was announced. Identification documents and healthcare insurance cards will be replaced for free.
Displaced students may attend schools in their relocation areas. Provincial achievement tests for displaced grade 6 and 9 students are cancelled and a process to address the Grade 12 diploma exams is underway.
The government started re-entry planning work to ensure infrastructure and basic utilities are safe when residents return. The Alberta Energy Regulator set up an emergency centre to help energy producers restart production once the danger has passed.
Any evacuees who need a breather after their ordeal may visit any of Alberta’s historic sites and museums at no cost.
Two: The Opposition plays fair
A crisis brings out the best in people, even politicians.
Drew Barnes, speaking on behalf of the Wildrose Opposition, told the House that the Fort Mac wildfire should not be used for “politics or bluster”. Rather than ambush the government in Question Period the Wildrose Opposition circulated its questions in advance to give the government an opportunity to better prepare its answers.
Consequently Ms Larivee, the minister for Municipal Affairs, was able to provide additional details on the sufficiency of firefighting resources, the impact of the provincial state of emergency on municipal governments (jurisdiction for all matters relating to the wildfire shifts to the province for 28 days) and other issues such as social support for evacuees and caring for abandoned livestock and pets.
Three: Fort Mac residents are courageous
The media is full of harrowing stories of residents tracking down their loved ones, throwing a few possessions into the car and heading north or south in search of safety. They encountered gridlock on the highway, walls of fire along the roadside and clouds of billowing smoke.
And yet there are no reports of road rage on the highway or fist fights over a tank of gas at a gas station.
The people of Fort McMurray demonstrated remarkable courage, resilience and compassion by responding to an out-of-control wildfire with an orderly evacuation even as glowing embers skittered across the hoods of their cars and their neighbourhoods turned into infernos.
Four: Canadians are compassionate
Canadians responded this crisis with an outpouring of charitable donations. The Canadian Red Cross reported donations in the range of $30 million in less than a week.
The provincial and federal governments pledged to match every dollar donated.
This generosity is mirrored in the cash contributions and in-kind donations made by businesses, banks, the energy industry, industry associations, universities and colleges, professional associations, non-profit groups, churches and mosques and the tiny town of Lac-Mégantic which suffered its own fire-related tragedy in 2013.
Five: Fort Mac will rebuild
The Alberta government has two messages for the people of Fort McMurray.
The first is a promise from Premier Notley to keep them save and to help them on the road to recovery.
The second is a personal message from Danielle Larivee, the minister of Municipal Affairs, and a survivor of the devastating wildfire that destroyed 40% of the town of Slave Lake in 2011.
Ms Larivee says: “I speak as someone who has been there and through that in Slave Lake: You can do it. Your community will be rebuilt. Alberta will rally around and be behind you…in the end your community will be strengthened by the way you have worked together in this experience.”
Many would be crushed by the challenge ahead, but if we’ve learned anything from The Beast it’s this: the people of Fort McMurray and their friends in the rest of Alberta and Canada are resilient and compassionate.
They confronted The Beast and overcame the traps that skewered recovery efforts elsewhere–fear, greed, political opportunism and bureaucratic bungling.
Fort McMurray will rebuild because to paraphrase a Fort Mac firefighter, “Albertans will not leave this place without a fight.”
Globe and Mail May 6, 2017, A7 and May 7, A10
Government of Alberta Situation Update May 8, 4:15 p.m.
Alberta Hansard May 5, 2016, p 809 and 813