May 9, 2016 Last Updated 7:26 am

North-South divide seen in coverage of massive Alberta fire

The Fort McMurray wildfire has grown in size – the equivalent of half the size of the state of Rhode Island – and dominates the news in Canada, far less so south of the border

On any given day what should be the lead story at any newspaper or web news site can be up for grabs? After am election the choice is easy, after a big, local sporting event it is, as well. But on many days editors have many choices, big and small, local and national.

That is why it has been interesting to see how the media has handled the Fort McMurray wildfire. For some, a wildfire in the remote areas of Alberta, Canada does not even merit much consideration. For some, including myself, it feels like the biggest story to come along in a while.

LaPresse Fort McMurrayThe fire began on May 1, southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The area is known for its oil sands operations. The area, and is oil, has felt the ups and downs that are the inevitable consequence of an oil economy – the area boomed in the last decade, but has felt the effects of falling oil prices experienced in the past two years.

The fire quickly grew and devastated the community of Fort McMurray, with an estimated 1,600 structures destroyed.

Having lived through the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, I can relate to the numbers involved here. In the Oakland fire over 2,800 homes were destroyed, and felt enormous in size. When it was over 1,520 acres were effected.

But the Fort McMurray is 161,000 hectares in size. For those not good converting, that equals over 620 square miles.


As the Canadian oil sands, along with US coal, lies at the center of the debate concerning fossil fuels and climate change, one wondered when a newspaper might deal with news of the fire from that perspective. Maybe it is too early for Canadian news organizations to approach the subject, but at least one US paper, the Los Angeles Times dared broach the subject:

The debate reflects a country wrestling within itself at a difficult moment — and it is testing that famous Canadian civility.

A provincial politician who called the fire “karmic” was quickly castigated and later apologized. When Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the fire was “very related to the global climate crisis,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested she was making “a political argument.”

Some environmentalists have been accused of lecturing to or, worse, condemning people who have lost everything. In Fort McMurray, more than 2,000 structures were consumed by the flames.

“I wish I could kick every person posting ‘That’s what you get for living by the oil sands’ comments,” a young Edmonton woman tweeted Tuesday evening at the peak of the evacuation, when flames were whipping across Highway 63, the only road out of Fort McMurray. “You’re terrible people.”

Janet Keeping, the Green Party leader within Alberta, was among several people who invoked climate change early in the week — and did so without clearly expressing support for fire victims. She soon tried to strike a new chord.

“Caring about people means caring about #climatechange,” Keeping wrote Thursday on Twitter.

Although there will be plenty of time for Canadian news organizations to be a forum for these kinds of discussions, it will be harder for US news organizations to do so when readers were never kept informed that the Fort McMurray fire ever happened in the first place.

That is why I think it important to point out the excellent story from the LA Times’s environmental reporter William Yardley, whose story was excerpted above. Yardley is based in Seattle, and before joining the Times worked for 11 years as a reporter for The New York Times.

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