Wildfire Redux

The headlines about the fires of northern Canada have disappeared. Nothing remains for the media but the charred houses and mangled swing sets of the residents of Fort McMurray, the oil boom town that serves the Tar Sands. These mines, where vast regions of the bitumen-saturated earth are excavated to extract the hydro-carbons to fuel our automobiles, resemble nothing so much as a biblical wasting of the earth, the scale and completeness of the devastation impossible to comprehend.

Tar Sands Upgrader ©J Henry FairTar Sands Upgrader

In spite of the scale and ferocity of the fires that blazed across the media last week, and knocked out a third of Canada's oil production, we read that operations will restart within a week. About 15% of the Fort McMurray was destroyed, which means the town, which has a chronic housing shortage, will undergo a mad building boom, and worker housing will be a problem.

Tar Sands Excavation ©J Henry FairTar Sands Excavation

But there is nothing to burn in the tar sands. The operators need only move the equipment away from the edge of the mines, then reconnect the power lines and pipelines when the fire passes.

What one does not read about is the tragedy of the forests that burned, which is an essential chapter in the horrible story of this industry.

Peace-Athatbasca Delta  ©J Henry FairPeace-Athatbasca Delta

Fort McMurray and the Tar Sands mines are just south of Wood Buffalo National Park and surrounded by other wildlands. The tremendous volume of wastes from the mines leaches or is disgorged into the Athabasca River, which immediately flows into the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Tar Sands Tailings Impoundment  ©J Henry FairTar Sands Tailings Impoundment

This area, larger than Switzerland, is one of the most ecologically important regions of the world. The list of species that depend on it contains a frightening number of instances of the words "last" and "only". All four of the North American bird flyways converge there. The last flock of migratory whooping cranes nest there. It is home to one of the last free-roaming herds of wood bison in the world.

Peace Athabasca Delta Region  ©J Henry FairPeace Athabasca Delta Region

There is an irony at work here: the tar sands are Canada's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is causing a change in moisture patterns. These boreal forests and wetlands around the Tar Sands are verdant and moist most years. This year, they are dry, and so they burned, clearing the way for the mines.

Boreal Lakes  ©J Henry FairBoreal Lakes

Photographer J Henry Fair is finishing a new book, Industrial Scars: The Hidden Costs of Consumption, a story about how things are made and the consequences left behind. It is available for pre-sale on Kickstarter.

His website is jhenryfair.com