Incendiary observations

Not only my Canadian, but my foreign readers may be aware that Fort McMurray has been burning these last few days, along with vast tracts of woodland around it. This is in the north-east quadrant of Alberta — about the middle of that if you are still looking — in the heart of oil sands country. One calls by instinct “a city” any place that houses tens of thousands of people, and “Murray” (as its denizens called it, when there were less than one thousand of them) did attain that municipal dignity some years ago. Now it is, together with its farthest outlying subdivisions, designated an “urban service area.” The Province of Alberta, with characteristic poetry, called it the “Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo,” and put it under unified bureaucratic command, when it graduated to cash-cow status.

Two brothers of my paternal grandpa pioneered in northern Alberta, not very successfully, but stayed until they died. (Typical chain-smokers, both made it nearly to one hundred.) The trace of their homesteads could be described as somewhere between “little” and “no.” Man’s mark on this world, when untended, quickly diminishes to the point where only wizened archaeologists might spot it.

Ditto the bears and beavers for that matter, or the trout in the depths of Lake Athabasca, which can grow to the weight of a large child.

I have no figures, for the purposes of pseudo-science, but would guess that the emissions from that forest fire have dwarfed the achievements of the oil industry. Wildfires require oxygen, fuel, and heat, and the region offers an accommodating landscape. The native trees all make good kindling, and Fort McMurray itself, though at 1200 feet, is in one of the concavities of Alberta, and thus a natural hot spot. It gets dry, it gets warm, and anything can ignite it, as something did the other day; and up it goes, as it has been doing at frequent intervals since the last Ice Age. As even our young prime minister observed — perhaps the first remark he’s made that I agree with — you don’t need “global warming” to explain it.

And nature, bless her heart, makes quick recoveries in such parts. The forests are “designed” (love that word) to rise again, phoenixes from ashes. Nature does not, however, re-grow towns, and the poor people who have been living there, trying to make an honest buck, and now made into refugees, will be needing our money along with our prayers. (By all means send them.)

Canada, oh Canada. We have settlements like that cast far and wide, some growing big as Fort McMurray, then growing suddenly smaller again when the local commodity has been sucked out. The price of oil also shoots and falls, lately taking other chunks of our economy with it. Wander from the Greater Parkdale Area for a hundred miles, in any vaguely northerly direction, and one might form the impression that the whole country — all two-point-five billion acres of it — is occupied by a few “urban service centres,” with hundreds of miles between.

Walk from Edmonton to Fort McMurray, and you won’t get there. Walk from Murray to anywhere else and the result would be the same. But then, everybody drives.

“The land God gave Cain” was Jacques Cartier’s description of this country, when he first caught sight of it back in 1534. For all our natural (plus unnatural) catastrophes, we quote that with a titter of pride. For just between us, it is incomparably beautiful.