A BIBLICAL exodus is underway in western Canada as more than 80,000 people flee the apocalyptic scenery at Fort McMurray, an oil town which remains engulfed by the vicious wildfires that began tearing across the province on Sunday.
In scenes more reminiscent of the Middle East, or the archaic days of early industry than the typically nonchalant North American country, convoys of evacuees are heading southwards in chaotic formations, shadowed by mass airlifts transporting thousands of people.
A state of emergency has been declared by the Alberta government, which in its latest communiqué said that 49 spiteful wildfires were being battled by more than 1,000 firefighters, hundreds of helicopters, and 22 air tankers. Seven of the fires are considered beyond all human control.
Residents were ordered to leave Fort McMurray on Tuesday after projection of high winds and low humidity convinced panicking authorities that the lives of all 80,000 were in imminent danger. Since then more than 1,600 homes have been ravaged by the flames, while firefighters continue doing their best to protect the surviving structures.
Whole neighbourhoods have been burnt to the ground, more than 25,000 refugees have sought shelter in the oil sands work camps to the north, and global oil prices have been driven up as provincial production is shut down as a precaution.
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, described the ensuing carnage as a shock to the nation.
“Homes have been destroyed. Neighbourhoods have gone up in flames. The footage we’ve seen of cars racing down highways while fire races on all sides is nothing short of terrifying,” he said. The Alberta community looked “like a war-torn corner of the world instead of our own backyard,” he added.
The Alberta premier, Rachel Notley, said “The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents. It is simply not possible, nor is it responsible to speculate on a time when citizens will be able to return. We do know that it will not be a matter of days.”
The genesis of the rampant wildfires remains undetermined, but a perfect recipe for disaster is thought to have amassed with the onslaught of the El Nino global weather phenomenon, which had left Alberta with a relatively benign winter that in turn increased its vulnerability to the tinderbox conditions of a hot dry spring. A lightning strike in a dry remote heavily forested plot is being mooted as a conceivable possibility.
Beginning on Sunday, the fires spiralled out of control on Wednesday night to conquer an area 10 times the size of Manhattan at roughly 210,000 acres.
Climate conditions remain unpredictable, and emergency services are having a difficult time dealing with furious evacuees who have little idea how long they will stay isolated, where they are going, and when they can resume normal existence.
No fatalities directly related to the fires have been reported, largely due to the monstrous effort underway by the fire service, and questions have now turned towards the future of Fort McMurray and who is to blame for the disaster.
Leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, a frequent critic of Canada’s widely condemned environmental policies, linked the fire’s devastation to the wider issue of global climate change.
She was immediately struck down, however, by Trudeau, who will have one eye on appearing a strong leader and another on not upsetting the corporate applecart.
“One thing we know is that with climate change there will be more extreme events,” said the prime minister. “But, we know very well that placing a direct link between any fire or a flood and climate change goes a step beyond what is helpful, and does not benefit a conversation we must have.”
Fort McMurray has already witnessed an economic exodus of residents following the global oil market’s downturn, with thousands unable to financially cope with the unpredictable ups and downs that define the changing industry.
A largely misunderstood outpost that harkens back to the wilder days of oil exploration at the turn of the 20th century, Fort McMurray has a much maligned reputation within Canada as a place people go to make a quick buck in the sometimes lucrative energy business. More than a third of its residents are employed in the oil and gas fields, and the city has become something of a byword for the environmentally catastrophic policies of the previous government, led by Steven Harper.
Canada’s proven oil reserves are the third largest in the world, courtesy of the enormous Athabasca oil sands (also known as tar sands), which have brought wealth and destruction in equal measure to Alberta’s northeast.
The oil sands were used for centuries by native First Nations peoples to shine their canoes, before 20th century oil exploration discovered a method to exploit the reserves and service communities like Fort McMurray were born to cash in.