We have seen how a complex interaction of both natural and human factors developed into the catastrophe of the Fort McMurray wildfire. There was no way this specific fire could have been predicted or prevented. One of the key factors in all of this has been human activity. The issue of historic wildfire management and suppression techniques reveals the limits imposed on us by chaotic and complex systems, and shows us the current limits of our scientific understanding and our ability to manage nature. Without complete knowledge of how a given complex system works, our actions can have unintended consequences.
The old technique of “zero tolerance” wildfire suppression was intended to protect the forests and surrounding developments, but had other unforeseen consequences. These very same techniques designed to protect the forest and human settlements have created a situation where the forests are now older with an increased fuel load. This means that the very forests and human settlements they were designed to protect are in fact now at an increased risk from catastrophic wildfires.
The problems go deeper than this though. The capitalist system itself also places limits on the way we manage and organize resources. The private ownership of the means of production also restricts the way we can organize wildfire suppression and firefighting, and restrains our ability to deal with and manage catastrophic natural events.
Fighting wildfires in the era of austerity
The political fight over the wildfire did shed light on something significant in relation to the budget cuts. This was the role that private companies are playing in Alberta’s wildfire management program. The cuts to the air tanker contracts in the NDP budget reduced contracts to private firefighting companies from 123 days to 93 days. Some of these companies have been providing air tanker services to the Alberta government for some 50 years, and are in fact reliant on these government contracts.
The government’s plan was to hire planes as needed once these newly-shortened contracts expired. In accordance with a newer, more modern approach to fighting wildfires (where not all fires are necessarily fought or put out - see part two), there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a more flexible, case-by- case approach to fighting wildfires. In fact, this seems to be a much more scientific approach to the problem of wildfire management.
The right wing has argued that the government is putting lives at risk because companies may look for longer-term contracts elsewhere. Caving, naturally, as always to the interests of private capital, Brian Jean, the principal mouthpiece for the capitalist class in Alberta, argued “air tankers and other firefighting contractors are leaving the province and won’t be here when we need them, and we will. This foolish policy will leave our forests, energy infrastructure, towns and the very lives of Albertans at risk.”
However, the truth of the matter is, that it is quite literally capitalism that is putting lives at risk. We must ask, what is the main concern here? Is the main concern fighting wildfires and protecting Albertans or is it maintaining the profits of a private company?
If the province’s wildfire firefighting program relies on private companies to provide air tanker services, then it stands to reason that the operation must be profitable for the company providing the services. Why would they do it otherwise? They certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t run the operation at a loss. The logic of the market then comes into play. If the contracts aren’t profitable then these companies will be compelled to seek other contracts that will be profitable – or cease operations.
So what about wildfire management? How does it fit into all of this? A key element to understand here is that the primary concern of these companies is to make a profit, not fight wildfires or provide firefighting coverage in Alberta. It doesn’t matter to these companies whether they fight fires in Alberta or elsewhere, so long as it is profitable.
It is quite rich then to see some of these companies, such as Air Spray, who have been quite vocal about the cuts, complain that their companies are not only being “put out of pocket” but that “firefighting coverage [is] at risk”. But firefighting coverage wouldn’t necessarily be at risk with a more flexible approach to managing wildfires. It’s only at risk because the cuts are incompatible with the interests of the private companies involved, i.e. because it is no longer profitable, or as profitable at least, for these companies.
Air Spray’s vice president Paul Lane has said that the government “is playing with fire” by cutting the contracts and threatened “if we get a longer-term contract somewhere else from Aug. 16 then we’re going to go” with the Edmonton Journal adding “leaving the province with no air tankers and nobody to fly them.”
In the same article Lane adds, “Not only is this bad for us, it’s terrible for the province, because if there are hot, dry days through August and September … then they’re banking on us being here or coming back. This undermines the credibility of the entire air tanker program in the province.”
The private air tanker companies are quite literally threatening and holding a gun to the government’s head. A spokesman for another of the air tanker companies said in relation to shortening of the contracts “The cuts effectively make the air tanker program unsustainable”.
We would tend to agree. It seems very dangerous to leave such a vital resource as wildfire management to the whims of corporate profit, the interests and profitability of private companies, and the logic of the market. This whole situation also demonstrates the increasing irrationality of the capitalist system. A scientific approach to managing wildfires is not possible on the basis of capitalism and the profit motive, and certainly not possible on the basis of maintaining the profitability of private air tanker companies.
Rather than cutting the air tanker contracts, which does leave wildfire management vulnerable on the basis of capitalism and furthermore leaves the pilots and firefighters working for these companies without guaranteed employment, the NDP government should nationalize the air tanker program and place it under the control of the firefighters, provincial scientists, wildfire experts, and local communities in order to develop a rational, scientifically-based, sustainable wildfire management program. In the face of the developing economic crisis, not to mention the interests and profitability of private companies, this will be the only way to effectively deal with Alberta’s changing wildfire regime.
Capitalism and the wildfire
One other very important detail in relation to the fire went largely unnoticed – the evacuation route itself. Most people not familiar with the Fort McMurray area were surprised to learn that there was only one major road in and out of town. This road is Highway 63, otherwise known as Suicide 63, with Highway 881 being an ancillary, and equally dangerous, route.
It was very lucky indeed that the evacuation went as smoothly as it did. Television screens and computer monitors were filled with harrowing images from the evacuation. With flames on both sides of the highway and 88,000 people evacuating along the same route, there was great potential for a major disaster and significant risk not only to those fighting the fire but also to those traveling the evacuation route. Had there been a major delay, problem, or accident along Highway 63, the story of the Fort McMurray evacuation could have been very different indeed.
A recent article in the Ottawa Citizen explained:
“As the fire encroached on the highway, residents who were performing their civic duty and following the evacuation order wondered if they had escaped their homes just to die in their vehicles. Highway 63 presented a classic bottleneck problem: as the evacuation order expanded, residents further along the highway entered it, meaning that traffic slowed and the evacuation itself crawled.”
Highway 881 is a secondary highway, which until recently was unpaved and entirely inadequate for the type and level of traffic. It acts as a feeder and secondary route when there are major accidents and problems on Highway 63. These roads see a lot of heavy, industrial traffic with large trucks and semis. Because of the nature of the work on the oilpatch with long working days and long working periods, there are many fatigued drivers trying to navigate a busy road often with trucks hauling large equipment, oftentimes even houses. These roads are not easy driving at the best of times.
It was Highway 881 that was the scene of the accident that killed two teenagers during the evacuation. They were killed in a collision with a tractor-trailer, just outside of Lac La Biche along the evacuation route.
Between 2006 and 2010, there were 3,339 accidents on both highways, resulting in 99 deaths. A total of 190 people have died on the highways between 2003 and 2015. The road is so notoriously dangerous that there is even a television program about it and another perilous highway through the Rocky Mountains, Highway Thru Hell. It is a sad state of affairs indeed when rather than fix these roads and make them safe, instead we get television programmes to watch the carnage unfold.
The whole problem with these two roads shows us the developing infrastructural crisis in North America, the changing nature of capitalism and a shift in the attitude of the ruling class. In the 1960s and 1970s, the capitalists weren’t opposed to pilfering state resources and using Keynesian economics to fund infrastructural projects. It can be difficult, after all, to turn a profit on infrastructure, which is why the capitalists were happy to have the state absorb these costs.
But with the developing economic crisis and falling growth rates, the capitalists have now shifted to pilfering state resources - not to absorb losses on infrastructure, but to literally raid state coffers through privatization, the pursuit of easy profits, and the search for quick access to new markets. The capitalists don’t want to pay to build and they don’t want to pay for maintenance. These things aren’t profitable, which is why they were left to governments for decades. The state absorbs the losses and the capitalists privatize the profits.
As the Ottawa Citizen explained “The province wanted to wait for the free market to handle the job, meaning that they depended on the divided highway to draw developer dollars.” The Tories, as part of their justification for austerity, long argued that the free market was the best and most effective arbiter of efficiency and that it alone could determine the development of infrastructure. The argument was that if the market needed something, such as infrastructural development along a dangerous highway, then the market would provide. Anything else would be to act as “big government”, bloated and inefficient - not an arbiter of efficiency at all but the ultimate destroyer of efficiency.
At a certain stage there must have been a calculation – would it cost more to improve the roads than it does to cover the costs of the many accidents and deaths? The lack of movement in this regard from the government, and the fact that the free market was unable to solve the problem, tells us the results of the calculation.
“Ten years ago, Highway 881 was just a gravel road. The success of the oilsands made it profitable to pave… In many ways 881 is a natural consequence of the oilsands’ success — what was a local access road became a highway seemingly overnight, and now the highway itself has the worst of both worlds.”
While it became “profitable to pave” Highway 881, nothing else was done. There was no expansion, no development, and no real improvements to safety. The development of the road has proceeded in an erratic, uneven manner and not in a rational manner. It has proceeded according to the needs of the market and profit and not according to the needs of the surrounding communities.
The province was eventually forced to improve the roads because of the public outcry over the sheer danger and volume of accidents and deaths. Significant amounts of money were invested in improving the two roads and providing adequate first response support. Shockingly, prior to 2010, the first responders to collisions on significant stretches of these two roads were provided by one volunteer fire department. The situation was entirely unmanageable and the service was eventually shuffled to another volunteer department farther away, compounding the problem for a number of years.
Most of Highway 63 is now indeed divided highway, but this process took a long time and was done in sections, meaning plenty of accidents in the meantime. First response on the roads has now been contracted out – to a private company, meaning the same problems we see with the air tanker program.
In any case, the improvements are far from complete. Significantly there are no rest stops and inadequate corridors and lanes for all the industrial traffic. Infrastructural development for Highway 63 and Highway 881 lag far behind what is required to service the industry in the area and for safety. Accidents will continue to happen and the death toll will mount, all because actually developing the infrastructure and making improvements to safety aren’t profitable. This is the misery of capitalism.
It is a surprise that this hasn’t blown up into a full blown scandal – especially in the face of the evacuation. How could it be that oil-rich Alberta, with all that oil money coming and in and out for decades, was unable to properly build the infrastructural necessities for the oil sands? Once again we are faced with the logic of the market and the profit motive. If it is not profitable, the capitalists will not do it - even if it is absolutely necessary.
With pipeline construction being delayed, this has put more and more oil transport into the back of trucks and rail lines – meaning more industrial traffic on roads. Furthermore, the rail lines and roads are inadequate and cannot safely accommodate the volume and type of traffic. The oil barons in Alberta would rather deal with inefficient infrastructure that slowly bleeds money away and directly causes significant carnage and death, rather than building the required infrastructure.
The infrastructure deficit in Alberta is plagued by the same issues that plague the wildfire management plan. Just as a scientific approach to wildfire management cannot be achieved on the basis of capitalism and a reliance on private companies, Alberta’s infrastructure deficit problem will not be solved on the basis of capitalism and a reliance on the “free market” to solve the problem.
The highways in and around Fort McMurray need to be expanded to accommodate for industrial and local traffic, and to provide for the safe transport of goods and people. Rail lines must also be added and spending on safety significantly increased. The question of pipeline safety needs to be seriously investigated. And these are only some of the infrastructural needs – to say nothing of schools, hospitals, and other services that desperately need investment.
This new infrastructure must also be designed to accommodate the needs of future evacuations. And it is not only Fort McMurray that needs this development. Many communities across Alberta, both large and small, remain at significant risk in the face of natural disasters owing to the same infrastructure deficit. The NDP government in Alberta will not be able to solve these problems on the basis of capitalism. Maintaining the profitability of private companies and contractors means a deterioration of services, and will mean a deterioration in safety and response times. The only solution is to nationalize these services under workers’ control and the launching of a massive socialized and democratic infrastructural development plan. This will be the only way to plan, develop, and improve these resources in a rational and scientific manner.
Workers stand to lose
As much as the Notley government will be judged by its immediate response to the fire and the evacuation, they will also be judged on how they handle the aftermath. Lorne Gunter, hoping the NDP government will fail of course, pointed out that the government will be judged on how the return of evacuees is handled, how the government handles disputes between landlords and insurers (to which tenants and home owners should be added), and how they manage the “rebuild without getting too bureaucratic”.
On the basis of capitalism, the rebuild can only be bureaucratic. In terms of the rebuild, only on the basis of socialized, democratic and community organizations can we avoid a bureaucratic mess, profiteering, inevitable complications, etc. - the assured results of allowing the rebuild to be done on the basis of the logic of the market.
While it shouldn’t come as a big surprise, we know from the Slave Lake fire that some of the biggest problems will arise between insurers and home owners. While all home insurance policies in Canada contain fire coverage, not all insurance policies will cover all contents, or include living expenses, etc. Not all tenants or renters will necessarily have insurance coverage or the proper coverage.
To be sure, many people now face devastating losses and long, drawn-out fights with insurance companies over the value of their homes and other property lost. As per usual under capitalism, it is the little guy who stands to lose versus the massive insurance and financial conglomerates.
The total insurance payout as a result of the wildfire could be one of the largest in Canadian history. But we can be assured of one thing. The insurance companies will not lose as a result of this disaster, and at a certain stage they will many people’s lives will be ruined.
Many will also be left with no homes or no job or both. Unemployment and job losses will also become a factor. The oilpatch has been hit with severe job losses and wage cuts over the past few years, and many have had a difficult year already. Many were anxiously awaiting spring start-ups and the resumption of work. Some workers, mainly the ones with union representation, have been given pay despite the evacuation and work shortages, but thousands of workers, mainly trades workers and contractors, have been left without work and without pay in the aftermath of the evacuation leaving them extremely vulnerable.
The emergency relief funding was provided quickly and efficiently for evacuees, however, it amounted only to $600 per adult and $300 per child from the Red Cross and $1250 for adults and $500 per child from the government. Being away from home, and with no work and/or income, this money won’t last long as people still need to eat, pay bills, and provide for children, etc. Then there are the issues related to accessing employment insurance, work and residence permits for temporary foreign and migrant workers. Undoubtedly, the fire and evacuation will certainly mean personal financial ruin for many workers in Fort McMurray.
Because of the fire and evacuation, the big oil companies were able to declare force majeure to protect themselves from losses and cover expenses for the duration of the crisis. The workers and people of Fort McMurray don’t have this option. They face the crisis alone, with no resources of their own to protect them from the fallout of the evacuation and predatory corporations.
While there will be some jobs returning in the immediate period for the clean-up and rebuild, whether economic life will return to normal in Fort McMurray in the long-term is an open question. Much of this will depend on the price of oil and the world economic situation. At the end of the day, it remains the workers who stand to lose the most.
A socialist plan for the rebuild
On the basis of capitalism, the evacuation and rebuild will mean the complete ruination of some working class families in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area. It means that the rebuild will be conducted in a chaotic manner, and will take years. In all likelihood, it means that the issues surrounding infrastructure and making the community safer in the event of natural disasters will be ignored, precisely because these measures aren’t profitable.
How will the NDP government respond to these issues? As it stands, it appears the NDP government has done everything in accordance with bourgeois law and political norms in Canada, and done it well. But this won’t be enough to clean-up and rebuild the city properly or protect workers in the face of the disaster and predatory insurance companies, construction firms, landlords, etc.
Rather than rely on contracting out services for the rebuild to private companies on the basis of capitalism, the NDP government should establish local, community-based rebuild committees with assistance from the provincial government, including scientists and other experts, to ensure the proper planning of the rebuild and to prepare the city for future emergencies and evacuations.
A local and provincial plan for the rebuild should be designed and implemented to guarantee the necessary supplies for a speedy rebuild, including massive investment into infrastructural development and improvement. Recommendations from wildfire scientists and experts should be included in terms of how to plan and rebuild homes and the community to make it safer in the event of future fires and evacuations. Fire and flood safety plans should be spread to all communities at risk.
Private companies, both in terms of those to whom these services will be contracted out and those already in operation, should not be allowed to profiteer off this disaster. If necessary, price controls should be introduced on goods such as food, clothing, fuel, equipment and medical supplies to ensure the community rebuild organizations have access to essential supplies and to prevent profiteering and hoarding.
Any private companies or corporations, whether they be oil companies, construction firms, insurance conglomerates, etc. caught exploiting the situation and profiteering off the misery of the people of Fort McMurray in the rebuild should be expropriated and placed under the control of workers themselves and the community to ensure a safe and proper rebuild, and to guarantee jobs, housing, etc. These expropriated companies should be included in the rebuild plan and linked up with the community-organized rebuild committees to help plan the rebuild and acquire the necessary resources, and to protect jobs and working conditions.
The government must also establish community-organized bodies that will come to the aid of workers and families in legal battles with landlords, insurance companies, and construction companies to protect workers and their families from the predatory profiteering of the corporations. Any private capitalist concern that is found to be breaking the law, profiteering, or exploiting evacuees should be expropriated, placed under the control of the workers and community, and linked up with the community rebuild plan.
Those without work in the area should be given priority access to community-organized work and jobs required for the clean-up and rebuild on the basis of need, organized and planned on a local basis with the assistance of the provincial government and run by the workers and people themselves and not on the basis of the profit needs of private companies. This should be designed to help those who are currently unable to work and have no access to pay and wages and will guarantee a rebuild based on community needs, and not corporate greed and profit.
The NDP government must also guarantee that more emergency funding is available for evacuees to ensure steady, regular income and fight for easier and improved access to employment insurance, or implement a provincial scheme. Those without shelter and food should be given priority access to safe and decent accommodation and jobs. The government must solve the issues facing migrant workers, ensure access to jobs and funds, and solve residency issues.
If left to the tender mercies of the “free market” and capitalism in the form of contracting out services to private companies, the key improvements to infrastructure and city planning required to ensure a safer community in relation to natural disasters will not be carried out. Profit will trump over all other considerations. The roads and infrastructure vitally needed to keep the city safe will not be built. On the basis of capitalism, the rebuild will leave the community without the resources and infrastructure required to make the community safe and resilient in the face of potential future natural disasters. The only way to guarantee a speedy, proper and rational rebuild will be to rely on the local communities themselves by implementing democratic, socialist measures to protect the community and those who work there from the profiteering of the corporations and the logic of the market.