On Monday, residents of Fort McMurray watched anxiously as wildfires burned southwest of the northern Alberta city. Fort Mac's streets are carved out of the boreal forest at the spot where the Clearwater River flows into the Athabasca. Backyards in the residential neighbourhoods in the west and northwest run up against walls of pine and spruce. Forest fire is always a threat, but on Monday the smoke and flames appeared to be far enough away to allow for hope that the city was safe.
On Tuesday, the worst happened. The winds came up and the wildfires flanked the city. The two oldest residential developments, Abasands and Beacon Hill, have been decimated. Thickwood, Timberlea and Parsons Creek, the newest and by far the largest residential developments, where there are modern schools and shopping malls and a beautiful ravine park, were on the verge of being overrun by the flames.
The destruction by fire of an entire Canadian city of more than 80,000 people is suddenly a possibility.
Fort McMurray is a remarkable place. People from across Canada and the world have built lives there. In grocery stores, you'll find halal meats displayed alongside cod tongues. Muslim and Christian children mix easily at the new Roman Catholic high school. Fort Mac is often maligned as a transient, wild west town and a symbol of oil extraction at all costs, but it is in fact a tolerant, diverse and progressive city – a very Canadian boomtown. Not perfect, but doing its best to be a durable home for oil sands workers in spite of the capriciousness of oil prices, the isolation and the long winters.
The focus now is on the logistics of caring for 89,000 evacuees – a staggering challenge. Government officials at all levels and in all provinces, along with private industry and the many native bands around Fort McMurray, are offering aid. Residents are safe and, miraculously, no one has been reported killed or injured. But many, or even perhaps all, may not have homes to return to.
The road back will be long. If there is any solace, it is in the knowledge that the wildfires of Canada's boreal forests are a regenerative force. With the proper support, and with the same spirit that built Fort McMurray in the first place, the city and its people will rebuild and recover, stronger than ever.