Mark Milke is a Calgary author.
The tragic wildfires that have engulfed parts of Fort McMurray, Alta., home of Canada's largest oil extraction mines and accompanying facilities, is a reminder that nature ultimately and always has her way.
Think of the 1998 ice storms in Quebec, the 2003 forest fires in Kelowna, the 2013 floods in Calgary, or what's now raging at Fort McMurray. All such tragedies send a signal that the raw nature we like to enjoy – the grand expanses, the hikes, the canoeing, the fishing and all the rest – is ultimately an uncontrollable Leviathan that we can only partly restrain.
Nature's current effect on Fort McMurray should also remind us how intimately Canadians are connected to this unpredictability. This includes many ways that have long benefited us, but that many of us urban dwellers forget.
Fort McMurray is a marvellous example of that. I note this in the midst of tragedy only as a reminder. It's miraculous that a population of 35 million people survive and thrive on the northern half of the North American continent, but it's not without struggle.
Most Canadians are probably unaware of Fort McMurray's history, at least beyond a vague familiarity with the boom-town extraction years. As a busy, modern city of 80,000 (more like 125,000 if the "shadow population" in neighbouring work camps is included), it is an exception to the rest of the sparsely populated Athabasca region of northeastern Alberta.
Long before we figured out how to extract oil from sand in an industrial process that some environmentalists love to hate and many locals prefer to praise, the region's original native population used the sticky surface deposits to waterproof their canoes. Explorer Alexander Mackenzie offered up the first non-native descriptions of the oil sands in the late 1700s.
The city was first incorporated as a village in 1947. Coincidentally, that was the year when Alberta's first major oil field – at least, the first one not trapped in sand – was discovered near Leduc, south of Edmonton.
That was consequential for Alberta, and indeed all of Canada. The discovery demonstrated that oil could be extracted from much deeper in the earth than previously thought, and so the exploratory area for oil was much larger than previously imagined.
In that sense, Leduc, a "conventional" field in oil parlance, was the precursor to Fort McMurray and Alberta's connection to innovative resource extraction, as well as the oil booms and busts that have marked its economy since.
Fort McMurray, with its "unconventional" extraction methods – think of surface mining and the increasing use of underground "in situ" (steamed) extraction methods – represents a continuation, writ large, of that seven-decade entrepreneurial tradition.
In the midst of this fire, let us recall that the benefits of what Fort McMurray represents have been immense. Only the most ideologically extreme and economically unaware would assert otherwise. The oil sands area provides 2.3 million barrels of the world's 97 million barrels daily. It has employed countless Canadians, including many of the 133,000 people employed in Alberta's upstream energy sector in the last boom year, 2014. That includes thousands of Newfoundlanders, who, according to one local census count, made up 12 per cent of greater Fort McMurray's population.
Despite the awful headlines, Fort McMurray is intertwined with all the risks and rewards that Canada's vast landscape and raw nature have to offer.