May 23, 2016
Northern Alberta, where a vast series of forest fires are located, is the most important bituminous oil sand region in the world. One person out of 10 works directly or indirectly for the oil sands industry producing more than two million barrels of oil a day. 88,000 people were evacuated from Fort McMurray, a town located in the heart of Alberta’s oil sands.
Alberta has a fire-prone landscape. There have been big fires before (2011 and 1951, for example) but they were in remote areas. The current fire has laid waste to some 2,400 homes and much of the infrastructure in Fort McMurray.
Firebreaks – gaps between flammable vegetation and homes or pits – are an important way to protect buildings. There were no such firebreaks around Fort McMurray. The town was surrounded by dense, tinder-dry forests. The fire chief Al Schran claimed the city found it difficult to create firebreaks due to the amount of privately-owned land near the town. “On private land, it is the owner’s responsibility to do that [take fire precautions] – we can’t just go on to private land to help mitigate some of those things.”
The oil-sands facilities however, have wide, vegetation-free firebreaks surrounding them. In fact, no oil-sands facilities have sustained any damage from the fires and government officials said they are confident “key energy infrastructure will themselves be unharmed.”
Maybe this explains why the government evacuated the town and not the production facilities? At least this is the excuse the companies give for not evacuating their workers – the government didn’t order an evacuation for workers until two weeks later.
While firebreaks can slow down or stop flames, they cannot stop the smoke. Many workers were vomiting, had burning eyes and other symptoms of smoke inhalation which can kill you and often kills people long before they burn. It became so bad that some workers quit.
Workers everywhere know the bosses never want to stop production. This is where their profits come from – not just oil – but from the intense exploitation of workers. Finally, 8,000 workers were evacuated from camps and production facilities.
In Northern Alberta, capitalism is at least as dangerous as the wildfires themselves.