Source: Janice Makokis/Twitter

As of May 9, 86 wildfires are burning throughout the province of Alberta—this total is down from over 100 a few days prior, but perhaps not for long.

Cooler temperatures and scattered rain in the southern half of the province have helped quell the fires, but the forecast predicts that it will heat up again over the weekend. Officials say northern Alberta, which is drier, is especially at risk of wildfire spread. Currently 26 of the fires are designated as out of control, 12 evacuation orders remain in place, and 24,000 Albertans are currently displaced from their communities and waiting to return home.

‘Creeping death’

There is a sense of dread among Albertans, not just because of the inherent horror of wildfires, but because of the feeling that the province can’t get the situation under control.

For example, many people’s cellphones have been constantly going off with new emergency alerts, but who gets the alerts for which areas seems totally random. Some struggle to find desperately needed information about whether or not they need to evacuate, receiving no alerts at all, while others continually receive them for fires in areas completely remote from them. 

Brendan Smith, a farmer from High Prairie, captured the feeling shared by the whole province when he described what it was like to watch the fire approach his home: “it just felt like creeping  death.” 

Unnatural disaster

What makes this creeping death all the more terrifying is not just the fires themselves, but the speed with which firefighting resources were stretched to the breaking point. Many are wondering why the government was not better prepared to deal with the fires. One obvious reason was United Conservative Party (UCP) Premier Danielle Smith’s decision to wait two days to call for federal assistance. It seems that she was reluctant to compromise her “Alberta-first”, anti-Ottawa posturing. But even once federal help was received, and despite assistance from Quebec, Ontario, B.C., and the U.S., many Albertans have still received little or no help as their homes burn.

Brendan Smith, mentioned above, made the difficult decision to defy evacuation orders and stay to fight the fire given the lack of resources in the province. He describes the bravery of his neighbours, many of whom made the same decision, and of his father, who drove his bulldozer directly into a fire to smother it with dirt, and came out with burn marks on his face.

Similarly, Geoffery Lalonde and his neighbours threw bucket after bucket of water onto spot fires in the bushes to save their houses when nobody else was there to help. Lalonde said it’s likely that they would have lost their homes if they hadn’t done this. He also estimates, “If there had been a bomber picking up water off the Shining Bank Lake, which they’ve done in the past before when they were fighting wildfires last year, they probably could have had the majority of it out within a few hours.” 

There are countless stories of everyday people acting with extreme heroism and selflessness to save, or try to save, their homes and communities. Heartening as these stories may be on the surface, they throw into relief the grim reality that Alberta was not prepared to deal with these wildfires. 

Remote Indigenous communities like East Prairie Métis Settlement have been hit especially hard by this lack of resources. Carol Johnston, who lost her home to the fire, says she was told “not to worry” by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas just one day before the settlement was evacuated. Then, once help finally came, it only stayed for a short while. Residents had to watch the devastating scene of fire trucks turning around and retreating from their still-burning community. The province had decided to focus its efforts elsewhere, clearly not having enough resources to address all the fires burning in the province. This left local firefighters and community members to save what they could. 

Another Indigenous community suffering from the fires is Little Red River Cree Nation, where 3,000 residents have been evacuated and 85 houses and buildings lost so far. An original settlement with important cultural significance, Mikkwa Sipi, Little Red, is also at risk of being lost to the fire. It’s unclear when the residents will be allowed to return, which is especially harrowing given that many of them have never lived outside of Red River.

Wildfires may be natural, but the lack of preparedness was man-made. It is not as if we don’t know that wildfires happen each fire season, and it is not as if we don’t have the technology to fight them. In fact, Clayton Rutberg, director of emergency management with Lethbridge County, said, “The equipment is the easy part, it’s sitting here waiting to go, but [we’re] trying to get people organized because the majority of the people we are sending up are volunteers with all of our organizations.” 

UCP Premier Danielle Smith repeatedly uses the word “unprecedented” to refer to these fires. But there are, indeed, precedents—many. It was only seven years ago that the entire town of Fort McMurray, Alberta was devastated by a wildfire, and one year ago that the whole town of Lytton, B.C. went up in flames. There was also the Chuckegg Creek wildfire of 2019, the Lethbridge and Coalhurst wildfires of 2012, the Slave Lake wildfire of 2011, and so on. While this year’s fires are especially extensive, this too could have been foreseen given that fires have been getting larger in recent years. In 2019, data from Alberta Wildfire showed that five of the 10 largest seasons had occurred in the past 10 years. 

Obviously, not enough investment and planning has gone into making sure the province is ready, with both equipment and personnel, to stave off wildfire devastation. In fact, firefighting equipment and personnel which were available in the past have been deliberately discarded, in some of the most blatantly shortsighted austerity in the province’s history.

‘Bottom lines, dollars, and cents’

Scott Donsellar, chief administrative officer of the Village of Stirling, speaking about the need to share resources and keep people safe, said that “it’s not about bottom lines, dollars and cents.” This is certainly true for the everyday Albertans who have sacrificed to help one another during this crisis. But for the UCP, absolutely nothing is more important than bottom lines, dollars, and cents—not even saving more dollars and cents in the future. 

In 2019, the UCP began gutting the province’s firefighting resources. First, they shut down 26 wildfire lookout towers, reducing the area of forest that gets supervised by one-fifth. The same year, they also eliminated a team of elite firefighters called “rapattackers”, who are trained to rappel from low-flying helicopters to attack wildfires from above while they are still small. This is especially good for extinguishing multiple fires before they can merge into one, which is how the fire that destroyed the settlement of East Prairie was formed. 

An ex-rapattacker Jordan Erlandson says the rapattackers could have caught some of the current wildfires while they were small. Current firefighter Ryan Kalmanovitch says the team is missed, and that they could be helping to set perimeters or extinguish hot spots so other resources could be focused on bigger fires. 

Then, in 2021, the UCP put through more cuts to Alberta Wildfire which led to more staff being laid off, including wildfire rangers and information officers. Their jobs involved educating surrounding communities about wildfire risks. Now, single rangers are often responsible for multiple regions, whereas previously each region would have its own personnel. 

In 2022, the UCP cut the length of the season that wildfire personnel are employed for by 10 per cent, meaning that many staff are still in training and not ready to work at the start and end of the season, when wildfire risk is at its highest. The stupidity of such a decision is hard to overstate.

Finally, all of these cuts have resulted in an overall degradation of working conditions, including the lack of Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for firefighting (a notably dangerous job), and a serious turnover problem. Harold Larson, who has been a firefighter for 14 years, says, “The key to staying long term in Alberta as a firefighter is sacrifice. Sacrificing relationships, income, benefits and even the body.” As a result, crews are now composed of more new, inexperienced firefighters as others leave for better conditions elsewhere. One veteran lookout server reflecting on the cuts says, “We are a skeleton crew out here.”

This brings us to today, where the province is woefully ill-equipped for the current wildfires.

The amount saved by all these cuts, according to the UCP, is about $23 million. This constitutes around 20 per cent of the whole provincial firefighting budget, and an infinitesimally small fraction of the amount of money that the UCP somehow always finds for the oil bosses. For example, it is about two per cent of the amount that the UCP gambled (and lost) on the Keystone XL pipeline in 2020. 

But even this paltry amount doesn’t count as a real saving. Ex-rapattacker Adam Clyne points out that the cuts will result in more out-of-control fires that ultimately cost the government money. Already, economists are crunching the numbers to estimate that 0.2 to 0.3 per cent of national GDP could be lost due to the fires so far. This is not to mention the cost of rebuilding infrastructure. It cost the federal government $77 million to begin rebuilding Lytton last year, and given the scale of the fires so far, greater amounts will be spent in Alberta. These costs will ultimately fall on working class people, as workers are always made to foot the bill to protect the profits of capitalists.

On top of financial ruin, many workers are seeing their entire lives go up in smoke as homes, sentimental belongings, memories, and community infrastructure are destroyed en masse. No amount of money could compensate for this loss, but Danielle Smith has managed to put an insultingly low price on it anyways. 

Albertans fleeing the fires can get a one-time payment of $1,250 per person and $500 more for each child, which is hardly enough to make up for a single week of missed work for most—never mind the fact that many evacuees have been displaced for longer. But even this small amount is only available to those who’ve been evacuated for seven days. Lalone, the man who had to save his own house due to lack of resources, qualifies for zero financial help since he wasn’t evacuated for seven days. “It will not help us whatsoever,” he says of the government’s paltry financial compensation.

Even the defunct alert system is a result of idiotic capitalist penny-pinching. In 2010, the Provincial Emergency Management Agency announced an Ottawa company called Black Coral Inc. would take over emergency alerts from CKUA radio, promising that it would work better. But instead, the alerts meant to inform people that they are near active wildfires seem randomly distributed, with some people receiving no alerts at all and others receiving dozens.

Each of these methods of protecting profits at the expense of human life—or even basic common sense—represent another way in which this disaster is not truly “natural”. The profit motive is the reason these fires caused so much chaos and devastation to begin with, and it is once again the profits of the bosses that will be the reason poor and working class Albertans suffer the worst economic fallout. 

Expropriate the arsonists

Brendan Smith, the aforementioned farmer from High Prairie who fought fires without help from the province, said that the wildfires moved so fast that “It felt like the world was covered in gasoline.” In a certain sense, it is. The fires ripped through the province so fast because of unseasonably hot, windy weather, which itself can be attributed to the pollution and emissions caused by capitalism. Capitalism, by fueling climate change, has been shaping weather patterns for many years now.

Climate change makes heat waves more intense and frequent, and this intense heat dries up vegetation and leads it to catch fire extremely easily. In Alberta in particular, evidence showing how climate change worsens our fire seasons has existed since at least 1993. Climate change has even caused an invasion of mountain pine beetles in northern Alberta, which kill forests and turn them into heaps of tinder. 

So while the capitalists did not literally pour gasoline all over the earth, they may as well have. They’ve polluted and destroyed our environment to the point that Alberta was turned into a massive tinderbox, and now poor and working people have been left to suffer the consequences. What we have is not simply a “natural” disaster, but a case of systemic arson. 

Arsonists can’t be reasoned with. We have to expropriate them. The capitalist class and their representatives in the UCP have adopted a literal scorched-earth mentality in search of short-term profits. What else can you call the decision to let the province burn to shave down a budget? A system in which this makes any kind of sense is a system that must be overthrown. Doing so is the only way to address the climate crisis.

If the capitalists can’t think far enough ahead to make sure we have enough firefighters to keep the province from going up in smoke, how can we trust them to implement the massive investment, foresight, and coordination required to retool the economy and deal with climate change? Even if they had the brains to do it, they don’t have the incentive. As we have explained elsewhere:

The only way capitalism has ever transitioned from one industry to another is when that new industry was more profitable. It’s not goodwill or perfect policies that pull capitalism in any direction, but the profit motive. This can be artificially created by subsidizing certain industries, but that strategy is limited by state funds, which are severely limited by the constant crisis capitalism is experiencing.  

When it comes to Danielle Smith, the problem is even simpler: she has promised to mercilessly fight any kind of transition away from fossil fuels in order to protect the local oil barons. But while Smith may be exceptionally brazen about her disregard for the environment, all bourgeois politicians essentially share her goal, which is to protect the interests of the capitalists no matter what.

Whether that means wildfires, droughts, or swarms of locusts, they are ready to let it happen – to the workers, that is. As for the bosses, they will no doubt be hiding somewhere safe with their air conditioning and hoarded wealth. That this wealth wouldn’t mean much on a barren earth clearly doesn’t matter to them, or we would not be facing the environmental crisis we are today. Ultimately, if we want to have a future on a livable planet, we have to overthrow the people setting it on fire.