A stock photo of forest fire. A stock photo of forest fire. Source: pxfuel

The unprecedented wildfires in the Canadian prairie province of Alberta shows the urgency of a challenge to the politics of neoliberal austerity, argues John Clarke

The early onset of heatwave conditions has unleashed devastating wildfires in Alberta. As of 17 May, 96 wildfires were burning across the western Canadian province. ‘Of the 91 fires burning inside Alberta’s forest protection areas, 27 are classified as out of control.’ There has been a total of 480 fires so far this season and more ‘than 694,000 hectares of land have been destroyed. The fires have consumed homes and businesses and forced entire communities to be evacuated.’ Almost 20,000 people are unable to return to their homes at the present time.

Some 2,500 firefighters are deployed in an effort to contain the fires. However, an information officer with Wildfire Alberta acknowledged that ‘Given the amount of fire we’re currently seeing on the landscape, it will be months before all these fires are brought under control unless we get a significant shift in the weather that brings a lot of moisture.’

A full 900 of those who are fighting the fires have come into Alberta from other parts of Canada and the US but, if the crisis continues throughout the summer, it is likely that the onset of fires elsewhere will make it impossible to maintain this level of outside support.

David Marin, a firefighter on the scene, told CBC News, ‘We’re going to need more people, we’re going to need more airplanes. We’re going to need more everything, just more and more and more, until we can get the situation under control.’ He also added that: ‘I’ve never seen it this dry this early and the winds have been incredible … this is going to be a long summer for us.’

Climate and austerity

The early onset of conditions of extreme heat has been compounded by the formation of a ‘heat dome’ over Alberta, trapping hot air inside it. Meteorologist Jeffery Berardelli suggests that this development ‘… is a very rare occurrence in this part of the world this time of year… Historically and statistically speaking, it is rarer than a 1-in-1,000-year event.’

Berardelli also noted that: ‘… the climate of the region was now hotter than previous decades, meaning these rare events will become more likely in the coming years.’ A recent study by Climate Central also suggested that an increase in the formation of heat domes displays the ‘clear fingerprints of climate change [and] make record-breaking temperatures five times more likely.’

While there is every indication that this year will produce a severe wildfire season of exceptional length, present developments are clearly part of an intensifying pattern. Recent years have produced enormously destructive wildfires and it has been clearly shown that: ‘…anthropogenic warming has increased fire risk, fire spread potential, and the length of fire seasons across parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan.’ In 2019, using a ten-year average, 2.5 million hectares of forest were being destroyed by wildfires and this figure was double that of the late 60s and 70s.

Incredibly, as the threat of climate-induced wildfires has become ever more severe in Alberta, ‘the government has cut back the department tasked with dealing with exactly these sorts of disasters.’ When it was elected to office in 2019, the United Conservative Party (UCP) provincial government shut down 26 active fire towers across Alberta, which eliminated 20% of fire-detection capacity.

Other funding cuts have ensured there are fewer firefighters, while poor working conditions with a ‘lack of access to full-time, year-round employment, benefits, pensions and even sick days’ have led to the loss of experienced firefighters, as they seek jobs in other provinces. Harold Larson, with twenty years of experience in fighting fires, notes that it ‘can be dangerous having an inexperienced crew — and ineffective in terms of fire management.’

Having undermined firefighting services, with an entirely predictable result, hard-right Alberta Premier, Danielle Smith, is now having to scramble to deal with the present crisis. She has even been forced to acknowledge that: ‘having a 10-times-worse fire event than we’ve ever seen is going to have to make us analyze what we need for baseline support … I’ve already raised this with the civil service.’

The  NDP (social democratic) opposition in Alberta and its leader, Rachel Notley, have made clear that they would restore the ‘Rapattack program,’ an elite aerial fire-fighting service that the UCP cancelled. However, it must be noted that when Notley was leading an NDP government in 2016, $15 million was cut from the firefighting budget and this was in the middle of a two-year period in which more than a million hectares were lost to wildfires.

Fossil-fuel capitalism

Alberta’s forests are burning with such ferocity that the smoke plume is thick enough to blot out the sun in parts of southern Ontario, some two thousand miles away. The conclusion that climate change is the driving force behind this intensification of wildfire activity is quite inescapable. It is, therefore, bitterly ironic that Alberta is at the heart of fossil-fuel extraction in Canada.

Danielle Smith and the UCP government find even the empty promises of the federal Liberal government on climate issues too much to swallow. Smith has argued that Justin Trudeau’s vague assurance of a ‘just transition plan’ would mean ‘the end of Alberta’s oil and gas industry’ and that it represents an ‘existential threat to Alberta.’

With Alberta presently governed by those at the rightward edge of mainstream conservatism, it might be understandable to look to the NDP opposition for some rationality on the need to stay the destructive hand of fossil-fuel interests. Sadly, however, Rachel Notley is a stalwart champion of those interests. This was shown when federal NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, recently suggested that, in light of the $34 billion in profit that Canada’s oil and gas companies made last year, the Trudeau government should cancel the subsidies they receive.

Singh’s gesture upset Notley and she made it clear that she disagrees with her federal counterpart. She admits that oil and gas profits ‘are spectacular right now’ but the industry ‘suffered significant losses during (the pandemic)’ and ‘there’s a pressing need to stay competitive.’ So fierce is her loyalty to fossil-fuel capitalism that she insists that ‘partnership’ with oil and gas companies is the only way forward.

Notley joins with Smith in opposing federal emission reduction targets and insists that: ‘…we’re not going to be endorsing production cuts. We think that we can reach emissions reductions through other means.’ It is worth stressing that the present round of disastrous wildfires was spreading across the province when the Alberta NDP leader uttered these words.

The harsh reality is, however, that all levels of government in Canada are committed to the same destructive course that Smith and Notley embrace. This country has led the way in extracting the most environmentally harmful forms of oil and this ‘began with the rapid exploitation of the tar sands in the mid-1990s.’ The export of oil and gas to the Pacific Rim, especially China, has become a strategic priority. ‘Canada has one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, and the investments already sunk into the sector are greater than those of any other in the Canadian economy.’

That the production of ‘dirty oil’ proceeds, even as depleted emergency response systems buckle in the face of these raging wildfires, expresses the nature of the climate crisis we face on this planet. We must challenge those who hold political power and demand immediate measures to address this crisis, but the struggle must also be for a society that is capable of creating a sustainable and rational relationship with the natural world. The Alberta wildfires are a dire indication of just how pressing that task is.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.