Fort McMurray fire prompts cross party co-operation

In politics, it’s often the moments that unite all sides that people remember the most. Far too often those moments are combined with a crisis.

The fire in Fort McMurray, Alta., is no exception.

As the wildfire ravaged the heart of Alberta’s oil country, in Ottawa the searing images of flames leaping alongside highways were everywhere.

Sighs of relief echoed throughout the building as people learned there were no injuries or fatalities from the fire itself (although two people were sadly killed in a car crash during the evacuation).

Like much of the country, many here have a connection to Fort McMurray.

Parliament Hill is home to many Albertans and Maritimers, including MPs, who have been transplanted to the nation’s capital for work or personal reasons.

Partisan politics has been set aside as Ottawa responds to the disaster, which has forced 88,000 people from their home.

Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose received a briefing from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She’d later receive a hug from Trudeau as she fought back tears during a speech to the House of Commons. A fitting human moment during a disaster that has shaken the country.

Ottawa’s response has been quick and comprehensive. The Government Operations Centre has been activated and the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program has been triggered.

At Alberta’s request, military resources have been dispatched — with helicopters and planes being used to move evacuees south. Satellites and geomatic support has been sent to help track the fire’s movements, while Health Canada has been stockpiling resources.

Donations to the Red Cross are also being matched. As of May 9, more than $54 million had been collected as Canadians generously open up their hearts and their wallets — with collection jars popping up everywhere.

While the immediate concern is the safety and well-being of the evacuees, the Fort McMurrary fire will have a lasting economic effect.

Canadian oil output has dropped by one million barrels per day as companies shut down because of the fire.

Those declines are combined with emergency costs and the price of rebuilding — unexpected expenses that neither the federal government nor cash-strapped Alberta would have planned for.

The Fort McMurray fire is expected to be the most expensive fire-related disaster in Canadian history. A Bank of Montreal report estimated the disaster could cost insurers up to $9 billion.

Then there’s the continued dry conditions in many areas of Western Canada, a situation triggered by drought in the western prairies last summer, a lack of snowfall and little to no rain.

With fire season just beginning, provincial firefighters are in for a challenging summer if the dry conditions continue.

In Alberta alone, as of May 9, 34 fires were burning with five considered out of control. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia, too, are already fighting more fires than normal.

Rain is falling in southern Saskatchewan this week, but in Alberta there are drought worries. With seeding underway across the prairies, calls for rain are already being shared on social media, while moisture maps are eerily red.

Canada’s agriculture ministers are scheduled to meet in Calgary for their annual meeting. With most of Western Canada facing dry to extremely dry conditions, the ministers may, too, need to set politics aside.

Until then, all one can do is hope, and perhaps even do a rain dance.

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