05.10.2016 01:00 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: pouring gasoline on the fire

A spark neglected makes a mighty fire.

Robert Herrick, an American writer and essayist, said that.   He was an interesting fellow – a novelist, a poet, a Harvard grad, a professor at MIT. Coincidentally, Herrick was also the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands for a time.  He was appointed to the position, but he likely knew something about politics just the same.

What would Robert Herrick think, then, about the confluence of the Fort McMurray fire and politics? What would he say was the spark that led to the fire that consumed Fort McMurray?

No one knows, of course, and nor does anyone know what caused the fire, either.  But that hasn’t stopped too many people – on both sides of the ideological divide – from assigning blame.  From pointing fingers, and recklessly accusing others.

It’s happened on the ideological Left and on the Right.

Early on, former NDP candidate Tom Moffatt posted this on Twitter: “Karmic #climatechange fire burns CDN oilsands city.”  He even added “FeelTheBern” as a hashtag.  What made Moffatt’s idiocy even more appalling was this: he is an Albertan.  He should know better, frankly.

There were others. “Burn, tar sands, burn!” wrote Edouard Dugas, in Quebec.  Dugas describes himself as a separatist and a capitalist.  He later allowed that he wanted the “tar sands” to burn – not the actual people who work there.

Another one, on Facebook: “I hope everyone gets the irony of a massive fire in the heart of big oil country.”  That came from Jim Ray in Guelph, who described himself as an “on-shore Volunteer at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.”  Also on Facebook, Carolyn Jean Bernard, out in Cape Breton, who wrote that it was “karma” for “those satanic oil frields.” She later deleted her comments and apologized.

American news and opinion web site Slate, no less, tweeted this: “Wildfire is devastating a Canadian city, now. This is climate change.”

And then, of course, there were the comments of Green Party leader Elizabeth May herself.  On Wednesday, May was asked by reporters if the fire was linked to global warming. “Of course,” she said. “It’s due to global emissions.”

Of course. When a hellfire of criticism started to (appropriately) rain down on her, May hurriedly reversed herself.  She claimed she hadn’t been attempting to link the Fort McMurray wildfire to climate change – although everyone knew that is precisely what she had done. “No credible climate scientist would make this claim, and neither do I make this claim,” May said, in a written statement, in that way avoiding being laughed at to her face.

The Left weren’t alone in their rank stupidity, however.  Some on the Right side of the spectrum were just as stupid.

Their targets, for the most part, were Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.  Trudeau and Notley’s sin: one was a Liberal, the other a New Democrat.  Ipso facto, Trudeau and Notley were the arsonists.

To its credit, the conservative web site The Rebel had decided to raise money for the victims of the Fort McMurray.  Unfortunately, the rebels also declared that Notley has “money for everything else, for everyone else – but not for firefighters.”  Trudeau, meanwhile, was apparently no better: Syrian refugees, the rebels sniffed, are “a higher Liberal priority than Fort McMurray.”

One commenter on the far-Right Small Dead Animals blog therefore wrote that, after the fire,  “the Fort McMurray Somali murderers and drug dealers will get a chance to repopulate around the country for awhile.”  He went on: “if Fort McMurray was a Lebanese/Syrian port city [Trudeau’s Liberals] would have sent a warship at no cost to the foreign ‘victims’.”

Over on Twitter, biochemistry student Sean Krys expressed support for Fort McMurray, then added that “Notley is a bitch.”  There was a lot more of that, and worse.

Whenever something terrible happens, of course, there will always be those who will plumb for votes in the depths of someone else’s misery. Fort McMurray – via the echo chamber of social media – is simply the latest manifestation of that illness.

What to say, then? To me, the most appropriate response came from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Asked about Elizabeth May’s appalling statement, Trudeau was clear.

“There have always been fires. There have always been floods. Pointing at any one incident and saying: ‘This is because of that,’ is neither helpful, nor entirely accurate. We need to separate a pattern over time from any one event. What we are focused on right now on is giving the people of Fort McMurray and the rest of Alberta the kind of support that they need right now and in the months and indeed the years to come.”

See? That’s how a Prime Minister speaks. It’s how any decent person would speak, in fact.

This May, things are hot enough as it is. We don’t need more fires set, rhetorical or otherwise.


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    Joe says:

    I would never call our Alberta premier a nasty name. However I like many others think she is incompetent and in all honesty I think history will not be kind to Rachel Notely. I also think that IF all Trudeau wants is another selfie then stay home. However as the leader of the nation he should make an appearance away from the media and the cameras and talk to the people who have fought the Beast and those who were forced to evacuate because of the beast. Its what leaders do. Just ask the people who have met the leader of the opposition, Brian Jean, who has taken the time to visit the people fighting the fire and those living in evacuation centers.

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    davie says:

    “…we need to separate a pattern over time from any one event…”
    Ah, I get it. The Fort Mac fire is not yet part of a pattern. e would have to find a pattern of designated drought, unusually large wild fires, smoke jumpers in action earlier and earlier each year. The Liberal middle will not assign blame or suggest remedies until there is a pattern. Let parliament decide. That is how a Liberal Prime Minister speaks, or any decent person who is not aware of any patterns over the past several years.

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    BillBC says:

    Apart from the insensitivity, people who say that it’s “ironic” that Fort M burned don’t understand what irony is. Among other things, it’s “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

    It’s not ironic that Fort M burned. What would be ironic is if Salt Spring Island, the centre of Elizabeth May’s power base, were to be devastated when a fire started at an anti-global warming cookout and spread across the island…

    Yes, Trudeau said the right thing.

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    Russ says:

    Well said

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    Steve T says:

    I wish that people would stop pointing to the Ft McMurray fire as evidence of climate change. It isn’t, and it diminishes the good work of people who are trying to mitigate real causes of climate change. It paints all environmentalists as nut-jobs, and makes it more difficult to get traction in the mainstream. Pointing to every variance in temperature, or every natural disaster, as evidence of climate change is ridiculous.

    Just to be clear: there have been forest fires since forests first grew. They occurred long before industrialization, and even before humans existed. They occur during warm years and cool years. They are typically caused by lightning strikes. When they are caused by humans, it is nearly always through the careless setting of campfires, or deliberate arson (such as appears to be the case in the B.C. fires).

    As WK points out, the residents of Ft. McMurray deserve better than to have their tragedy exploited.

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      The Doctor says:

      Well put. A related point was eloquently made by Thomas Homer-Dixon in a piece he wrote in the Globe a week or two ago regarding the Leap Manifesto. His point was that the Leapers are actually doing a disservice to the battle against climate change, because they are making that battle out to be a simultaneous and inextricably linked battle against capitalism, free enterprise and the current mixed market economy that we live in. That’s not the way to get traction among ordinary centrist apolitical people. It’s preaching to the lefty activist choir, who are already on board.

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        davie says:

        I think a few people behind the Leap figure that an obstacle to doing something useful is free enterprise/capitalism and the pressures on people making decisions in large corporate organizations to emphasize profits over environment. I agree with your point, but I think lefties/Leap see the capitalism and climate degradation as tied together, not 2 separate entities.

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          The Doctor says:

          That’s exactly where their logical fallacy lies, i.e. in assuming that it’s capitalism that is the “cause” of climate degradation. That’s partisan, sophist bullshit. Humans are the cause of environmental degradation. We’ve been degrading the environment in one form or another ever since we have existed — we were doing stuff like deforestation, erosion and accidental poisoning (e.g., lead, mercury) long before the industrial revolution happened.

          More to the point, the unstated, veiled assumption behind the Leapers’ line of thinking is that socialist and communist societies don’t cause environmental degradation. Utter bullshit. Have you heard of this place called Chernobyl? How about the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union? Three Gorges Dam, anyone?

          Anyone who’s listened to or read Naomi Klein and has their lights on upstairs knows that she sees the climate change fight as the left’s golden opportunity to smash capitalism. Seen that way, the Leap Manifesto is nothing but old lefty kool-aid in new bottles.

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            doconnor says:

            Capitalism does a uniquely poor job of handling problems like this. There is no mechanism including the cost of externalities without government intervention.

            For Chernobyl the government owned the power station and the government is covering the costs of the clean up.

            In contrast under our capitalist system the company that caused the Lac-Mégantic disaster can just declare bankruptcy and leave the government to cover most of the costs. The owners even get to keep the profit they made previously under its poor safely procedures.

            This is of course is why there is so much denial over global warming. Its exposes the flaws in Capitalism.

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    lance mclean says:

    If there is any fault of man, other than possibly of the starting of this fire it is that we have not allowed the natural cycle of these forests to occur. We prevent them from burning and in doing so create a much more dangerous scenario. Fires are a natural part of the forest ecology, thats why some pine tree’s cones are tightly formed with a coating of sap, fire allowed them to burst open and that allows their seeds to propogate new forests.

    As stated by Tom Paragi, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, “”If you keep putting out all the fires, there’s no breaking up of these large expanses of spruce,” Paragi said. “Fires can get dangerously big really fast.” Biologists like Paragi team with state fire managers to stage controlled burns to break up large patches of spruce and to stimulate new growth favored by moose, grouse and other animals. “Generally, fire is a positive thing for the nutrient cycling of the boreal forest,” he said. “After a June fire, I’ve seen waist-high willow sprouts by fall. We’ve also burned aspen in May and had sprouts well over my head by hunting season.” (Alaska Dispatch News)

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    Richard says:

    There have been some truly stupid things said by people on both sides. It seems that since yesterday’s declaration by the Prime Minister that the offers of foreign assistance are appreciated but unnecessary that those on the Right are somewhat unaware of how a federal system of government works. There’s also the irony of them wanting to let the Russians have access to our airspace, mere months after they were demanding that Harper lead a NATO attack against Putin for interfering in Ukraine.

    The muckraking aside, it has been fantastic to see how much good and come-togetherness and positive examples of humanity have risen from this terrible situation. Canadians across the country have stepped up to show their support, and I will remember that much longer than the foolish memes people post on their social media pages.

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    Stephen Downes says:

    I contribute to the Red Cross relief program and feel for the people of Ft. McMurray. Something like this is never fun. It’s not karma or any such thing, and nobody should be cheering for this. The people of Ft. McMurray don’t deserve this. They are people like you and me doing what we do: working at jobs, supporting our families, having a life.

    But don’t think for a moment that this isn’t climate change. The people of Kelowna, Slave Lake, Lilloett, Lynn Lake and others have seen the rising tide of devastation in recent years as the effects of global warming make the fires more frequent and more devastating. Now the people of Ft. McMurray feel it as well.

    We don’t do ourselves any favours when we ignore this connection. The expected insured cost will hit something like $9 billion? We need to add that number to the calculations we make when people say alternative energy is ‘too expensive’ or ‘bad for the economy’. We could pay off New Brunswick’s debt with the money we’ll spend rebuilding the Fort.

    It’s not ridiculous or misplaced to make these statements. It’s reasonable, and when huge costs like this happen, they should be tallied – and attributed – appropriately.

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      Al in Cranbrook says:


      Colby Cosh writes an excellent article about the actual causes of such fires in recent history, and it has nothing to do with climate change…


      Remember the fire of 1988 in Yellowstone Park? 1.2 million acres up in flames…


      Why? Lousy forest management combined with some hot weather created the perfect storm scenario. Same as this fire! And there will be many more like it until our forests have corrected themselves back into balance.

      What do you suggest we do? Write a couple laws to change the damn weather??? Tell us, what exactly is the ideal climate for the planet??? And when, precisely, did it ever occur??? And if it did once or twice, how long did it last???

      Go back over the history of the planet since the last ice age. There is not thing one unusual about our current global climate, save for the fact that it has been considerably warmer numerous times over the last 12,000 years!

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    Stephen Downes says:

    p.s. real research (not just opinion) points to the effect of climate change on fires. https://newtrail.ualberta.ca/spring-2016/features-dept/the-rising-cost-of-fires

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      davie says:

      This is not real research, but, in a frenzy of curiosity, I looked a multiple listings site for Fort Mac, and found 760 houses for sale, 0 to 900 thou. I imagine those were on sale before last week, and were on sale because of the oil price plunge. But it will be interesting to see how many people are willing to invest their future in Fort Mac after this past week’s losses and flights.

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    Joe says:

    So does it change anything now that Trudeau has announced he is going to Fort Mac on Friday?

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      Richard says:

      It changes everything! Now, instead of complaining that Justin doesn’t care about Alberta, they’ll be complaining that Prime Minister Selfie is going for a photo-op.

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        Charlie K says:

        How dare Trudeau, that dilettante, visit Fort Mac in the midst of a crisis that is still on-going just for self-glorification. If there’s even one picture of him standing next to a burnt tree or home, I will lose my mind. The audacity of this Prime Minister to exploit this tragedy while there is still smoke in the air.

        And to add insult to injury, he’s going on a Friday of all days!!

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          Richard says:

          ON A DAMN FRIDAY!!!

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      davie says:

      I doubt he would be going were he not about to announce a big aid package.

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    Ted H says:

    The disgusting, ignorant and completely ridiculous comments emanating from the Right side of the political spectrum on this issue warrants a paraphrase of a saying that was once common in the Wild West “the only good conservative is a dead one” in order to meet their hyperbole with a comparable sentiment.

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      Yukon Cornelius says:

      I don’t think you’re elevating the level of the debate.

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        Peter says:

        Ted doesn’t want to elevate the debate. He wants to shut down folks who disagree with him.

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          Ted H says:

          Actually I was just trying out a convoluted sentence structure worthy of Rex Murphy, I don’t give a damn about the debate or who agrees with what.

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      Charlie K says:

      I dunno…

      Elizabeth May making an untimely, tone-deaf faux pas off the cuff is pretty much the same as calling Premier Notley a bitch and scapegoating Syrian refugees.

      Isn’t it?

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    Charlie K says:

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    Either way, god damn you and whatever you do.

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    Tim Sullivan says:

    Lefties think there are opportune times to talk about things, but only if they agree with what is being said. Righties think there are bad times to talk about things, but if it is something agreed to, say what you want.

    I have two thoughts:
    1) People should be allowed to say whatever they want to say and not be told that it is a bad time. The cure for bad speech and offensive speech is more speech.
    2) There are too many times when it is “too soon” to talk about important issues. We see that after every mass gun shooting in the US — “now is not the time to talk about gun violence / gun control.”

    Trudeau is right. There have always been fires and floods. With climate change, these will occur more frequently and will be more severe.

    There have been very few deaths (two from what I read but those were traffic accidents). That is a good thing – few deaths. Good planning, good training. Lessons learned from earlier disasters. But the property damage, the disruption to lives, the distraction from other important matters makes the whole thing so terribly unfortunate. Unless we address the causes of the fire (it was most likely started by a human since it started so close to town / forest management and the abundance of fuel so close to town / dry conditions and warn weather), there will be more and maybe with more dire outcomes in terms of property loss and loss of life.

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    Houland Wolfe says:

    Climate change aside, we need to take more care when building communities in the middle of a vast boreal tinderbox. Many homes in Fort McMurray had backyards that abutted the forest itself. They had no chance. I don’t know what size of buffer is required but it would need to wider than the highway that the fire jumped with such ease. The other thing is to quit building homes out of fuel. Vinyl siding and windows, asphalt roofing tiles? That is asking for it. Toronto required that all new housing built after the Great Fire of 1903 be built of (fireproof) brick. Yes, it costs more to use fireproof materials. But it’s a small price to pay. Just ask the evacuees.

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      Houland Wolfe says:

      In today’s May 13 Globe, Professor Toddi Steelman says that fuel breaks (buffers) are of limited use in boreal forests where a “running crown fire will not be stopped”. He recommends building fire safe structures, and evacuation rehearsals. Like many, he is silent about climate change. Can we come to an agreement about when it is no longer “too soon” to talk about this? How about when people start returning to Fort Mac?

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