We live in an isolated community.
Fort McMurray – a city, or urban service area, located 435 km northeast of Edmonton with a population of 68,002. Besides a few other hamlets within the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, the closest other settlement lies approximately 200 km south.
For all intents and purposes, we are alone. Surrounded by vast stretches of boreal forest.
Only one way in.
That is the truth we live with every day. I thought about this as I sat in my car on Highway 63 a little over a month ago; the traffic backed up for a few kilometres from an accident that happened just minutes before I left work. This isn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.
It’s not the traffic jam itself that concerns me. Coming from someone who has spent years in traffic around the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and even the occasional Fort McMurray traffic crawl (circa 2012/2013). I’m used to it, as aggravating as it can be. But being stuck in a traffic jam with no alternative route? Especially when you need it? That’s terrifying.
We’ve all heard the talks about adding an additional highway since 2016. Clearwater east. Highway 686 east/west connector. These are a few of the solutions that were put on the table to make it so if we needed to get out, we could. But sitting here in this traffic reminds me of just how vulnerable we really are. What if this traffic jam was facing in the southbound lanes leaving town? What if the road was blocked and clearing it was no longer an option? What if the road just disappeared? Washed away?
Good thing there isn’t something like, let’s say, a fire.
It’s been six years since the town was evacuated en mass. Two years since our most recent local disaster. When will the next one be? Hopefully never. But we need to be realistic. There will be others. It’s only a matter of time.
Through all of this, I can’t fathom how we are sitting here in 2022, with little to no progress made except for a few surveys on additional evacuation routes. As best as I can figure, there are currently no plans to execute any of these projects. And yes, I know these things take time and money. Sometimes, we just don’t want to spend the money. But when your former Fire Chief acknowledges the possible loss of 2000 people as a victory in 2016, we have to wake up and realize just how much of a problem we have.
“I really believed at the end of Tuesday, if we wake up at first light and we’ve got 50 percent of our homes left, and we’ve only killed a few thousand people, we’d have done well.” – Fire Chief Darby Allen
What is the price tag on the safety of 68,000 people?
And just to be clear, I’m not speaking poorly of any emergency responders. They did an amazing job under challenging circumstances. But I can’t understand why we see a problem, know how to fix it, and end up doing nothing or dragging our heels over it. Especially when it puts lives at risk.
There is a way out. I only hope we can make it happen before we have to utter the words “next time.”