Oil sands workers bear brunt of Alberta wildfire

Gillian Steward

May 17, 2016 - As the wildfire raged and 90,000 people including kids, the elderly, and hospital patients were forced to flee from Fort McMurray on the only highway that would take them to safety hundreds of kilometers to the south, Canadians saw a very different city than they are used to.

It was no longer just a symbol, an easy target in the ongoing conflict between those who want oil to stay in the ground and those who see it as key to their livelihood.

Even just watching via television or iPhone the long lines of vehicles full of people inching forward as flames and smoke closed in was terrifying enough. I can’t imagine what it felt like to be in one of those vehicles.

Suddenly Fort Mac and the dozens of oil sands extraction plants that surround it were all about the people who live and work there.

It wasn’t about climate change policy, carbon emissions, dirty oil, toxic tailings ponds, the highway of death as that one highway out of town is often called, or traffic jams at the Tim Hortons drive-thru. Neither was it about fat pay cheques, easy money, or the lure of job opportunities (until the price of oil sank).

It was about hundreds of homes burnt to the ground. Charred trucks and toys. Melted barbecues that once sat on decks that are now nothing but ash. People bedding down in camp cots in evacuation centres. People knowing that unemployment insurance was their only option at this point.

Suddenly oil sands development wasn’t about statistics – barrels of oil produced a day, soaring carbon emissions – but the people who live in the area and have a huge stake in that development.

These people and others who work in resource-based industries always seem to be forgotten when the arguments about environment and economy get heated. Just as indigenous people always seem to be “in the way” rather than considered as a potential partner in remote resource projects. Article Continued Below You might be interested in

But as the mass exodus from Fort Mac showed, if you take people out of the equation, there’s not much left to work with.

Half of the oil production in the region was shut in because of the fire, not because the facilities were in danger of being torched but because they need thousands of people to keep them operating and those people had to leave.

Once the wildfire changed direction and it was clear tar sands mining and in-situ operations north of Fort McMurray were out of danger, oil companies immediately started making plans to fly workers in via their private airstrips and house them in adjacent work camps so they could rev up operations once again.

Canadians across the country have been more than generous with donations and offers of help for the thousands of displaced people who call Fort McMurray home. The Red Cross raised an unprecedented $86 million in 10 days, some of which is already being distributed to evacuees.

As we watched people trying to escape the flames and then lining up outside community centres in Edmonton and Calgary to collect emergency funds, I couldn’t help but wonder how this devastating wildfire will affect the divisive pipeline debates that have inflamed people across the country.

Will it tilt the discussion in favor of the people who earn a living from these mammoth petroleum projects? Or will it make the impact of climate change on Canada’s vast boreal forests so apparent that carbon emissions will have to be curbed faster than planned at this point?

Some have suggested it’s time to start retraining workers so they can move into the renewable energy sector. Do they have any idea how many people would have to be retrained?

On the other hand, is it possible to preserve good jobs in the resource sector and save our forests, towns and cities from the impacts of climate change? Or is that just a pipe dream cooked up by politicians and oil company executives who want to have it both ways?

Looks like the pipeline debates are about to get even hotter.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week. gsteward@telus.net