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Editorial: Lessons from Fort McMurray

Fire emphasizes need for west-east route


August 4, 2016
By Andrew Snook


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August 4, 2016 – The massive forest fire that caused the evacuation of Fort McMurray on May 3 must have been cause for frayed nerves among transportation officials in Alberta.

The evacuation to the south down Highway 63 provided dramatic images of cars pushing relentlessly down the four-lane highway as flames rushed towards them. That four-lane stretch is part of the near-complete 240-km portion of the highway that was being twinned in a $1.22-billion effort to provide stronger transportation routes in and out of Fort McMurray and the oilsands region.

But had the fire broken out just a few years earlier, that highway would have been just two lanes wide. What would that have meant for evacuation efforts? It’s not difficult to imagine the potential for tragic consequences.

That’s not to say there is blame to be laid at the feet of any officials with the Alberta government. However, it should cause us to stop and think about the transportation networks we have created for other communities also surrounded by the thick forest landscapes that cover so much of our nation.

On any given day, Highway 63 is a sufficient route for handling residential and commercial traffic in and out of the city. But for residents of Fort McMurray fleeing the fire that was coming at them from the west, the north-south Highway 63 was the only real transportation link that was viable to help them escape the city. An article from Keith Gerein of the Edmonton Journal on June 7 discussed this same argument, with residents suggesting that a west or east route would be the best option for alleviating any fear of efficiently evacuating the community in the future.

Two suggestions are provided as part of Gerein’s story: a western route that links with Highway 88 bound for Peace River and Grande Prairie, or an eastern route towards the border with Saskatchewan and Clearwater River National Park.

Neither of these routes would be an easy undertaking. Both would require building routes through forested territory, creating a large stretch of road that would have no amenities to provide for travellers heading in that direction. And while the cost would (likely) be in the hundreds of millions, at minimum, finding a route without a significant environmental impact could pose an even bigger obstacle.

Despite the obstacles, a solution does need to, at the very minimum, be a part of the post-fire discussion. There may be other issues surrounding the fire that take greater priority in the weeks and months ahead, but this is something that cannot be overlooked. One major route in and out of a community where the risk for natural disaster is present is a significant safety concern.

It will be interesting to see how this issue is addressed, and whether or not other Canadian communities react as a result. As all provinces look to their own transportation infrastructure priorities in the years ahead, Fort McMurray has taught us that the communities nestled within the forest-rich portions of our country are at risk of a similar fate.

And the next time, we may not be as fortunate as we were in Fort McMurray.