Fort McMurray fire is wake-up call for rural communities

On Oct. 8, 1871, strong winds drove a forest fire into the town of Pestigo, Wisconsin, totally destroying it

On Oct. 8, 1871, strong winds drove a forest fire into the town of Pestigo, Wisconsin, totally destroying it.

Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are thought to have been killed – accurate figures are impossible to obtain as all the local records were lost as well.

The dry conditions and strong winds created a firestorm strong enough to throw rail cars and houses into the air.

Nearly 5,000 square kilometres or 1.2 million acres of forest were consumed, as were 12 communities.

It was the deadliest fire in U.S. history. Paradoxically, it is almost forgotten now because the Great Chicago Fire happened the same day.

Last week a forest fire forced over 80,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray, Alberta. Thanks to much good luck and some good management, no one was killed or seriously injured (except possibly two fatalities in a car crash).

As what happened at Peshtigo shows, however, things could be quite different the next time.

May 7 was Wildfire Community Preparedness Day and local residents showed plenty of interest at a FireSmart display put on by local firefighters during Clearwater Farmers Market on Saturday morning.

That was a healthy sign.

We as citizens need to take the primary responsibility for ensuring our own preparedness. Governments are wonderful inventions, but we cannot expect them to solve all our problems for us.

In 2003 the wildfires in the North Thompson were the top of the provincial priorities – until the Kelowna fire began.

For a short while the Clearwater to Blue River area had no electricity, no highway access in or out, and limited communication with the outside world.

The forest was extremely dry and, if there had been a fire within any of the communities, it would have been a serious situation indeed.

Lecturing is easy to do. Here is what your editor plans to actually make happen.

• Individual preparedness: Back in 2003 and for several years afterwards I carried an evacuation kit in my vehicle – food and water for 72 hours, extra clothing, photocopies of important documents, that kind of thing. I intend to get back into that habit, as well as review and update other evacuation plans. I also intend to keep my gas tank topped up.

• Neighbourhood preparedness: Several years ago the apartment building I live in started work on a fire emergency plan. I intend to work with strata council and the other residents to update and implement that plan.

• Community preparedness: Your editor is going to badger town council and other local governments to make sure their emergency plans are up-to-date and communicated to the public.

• Preparedness at the provincial and national level – Look for editorials on this.


• Working to control climate change: Your editor, as a private citizen, will continue to campaign for carbon fee-and-dividend as a way to help control fossil fuel use and encourage the change to alternative sources of energy. Despite what some people tell us, the world’s climate is getting warmer, human beings are causing it and, unless some things change, wildfires are only going to get more common and more severe.



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