Some Fort McMurray residents have described the situation as feeling like armageddon. Thousands of families, most of whom include oil sands workers, have lost everything. And it’s still not safe for residents to return. Meanwhile the provincial government is struggling to find safe space to temporarily house Fort McMurray’s residents.

So far Canadians have given over $67 million in aid to the Red Cross, with even the newest and most vulnerable residents, Syrian refugees, giving what they can to support those affected.

Regardless, the fire is quickly becoming the most extreme natural disaster in Canadian history, and there is still no end in sight. The burning edge of the boreal forest has destroyed Canada’s oil town, much like the breaking levees in Louisiana led to the washing away of America’s Big Easy.

An economy up in flames

Fort McMurray has quadrupled since the 1970s for one reason: the hurried extraction of bitumen, the dirtiest form of oil, from the tar sands. The near complete loss of workers due to the fire has impacted this primary industry.

“With so many workers fleeing their homes and otherwise preoccupied with the safety of family members and property,” observed one commentator, “some oil sands operators are scaling back production.”

Syncrude Canada has all but halted operations. Other oil companies that have announced partial production stoppages include Suncor Energy, Shell Canada, ConocoPhillips and Nexxen. Reports indicate that pipelines have been closed for safety reasons.

Fort McMurray will likely remain empty of residents for a while, and energy commentators have taken notice. “The biggest risk factor oil sands companies face now is a labor force-uncertainty,” said one analyst from Alberta Oil, “especially if the wildfires become a prolonged menace to populated areas.”

Nature has put the tar sands on temporary lockdown, and while short-term analyses project a positive effect on oil prices as stocks deplete, the 85,000-hectare fire may be the final nail in the coffin for Canada’s largest industry.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs in the oil industry in Fort McMurray and across Alberta in the last year, reflecting an economic downturn in the billions. With a $9-billion price tag, the fire will surely cost oil companies accordingly.Some estimate that it might be a year before workers can return to normalcy.

Rebuild, but for whom?

While the focus is on providing emergency relief for evacuees and mitigating the destruction of the fire, there are whispered debates. How do we rebuild? Should we rebuild at all? What are we left to work with? What is the future of our community?

What many don’t know about Fort McMurray is that the town has long been on the verge of breaking: thousands unemployed, gang violence, drug addiction, domestic abuse, a lack of affordable housing. “Petro-mansions,” as one writer dubbed them, and low-income housing are left in ruins.

Though many locals will discount these reports, rapid population growth in the remote city has undeniably created public health issues. But a varied mix of economic desperation and a pioneer mentality of striking it rich has drawn thousands of migrants, service workers, and tradespeople.

With nearly two millions barrels of bitumen flowing out of nearby camps on a regular day, and oil executives pushing forward pipeline proposals and expansion plans to double that number, what used to be a quiet town of under 30,000 is geared towards the most unsustainable of Canada’s industrial energy projects.

And the bitumen has not trickled down fairly. In 2011, 300 people were evacuated overnight from seven condo buildings along Penhorwood Street when an engineer deemed them unsafe. Four years later, when the derelict buildings were finally ordered to be demolished, many of the low-income families were still searching for affordable homes.

About 300 people are homeless in Wood Buffalo, 37 per cent of whom are Aboriginal, but housing developments are often earmarked for oil sand workers. Service workers and economic migrants, including 3,000 Somalis, support themselves through the informal economy, many without hope of accessing jobs beyond taxi drivers, cooks or custodial staff.

A review of Fort McMurray’s history indicates that economic migrants, the unemployed, First Nation people, drug users and sex workers have and will continue to live in precarious conditions.

A shocking report from the Globe and Mail, “Why so many Somali-Canadians who go west end up dead,” revealed that many Somali men went to Fort McMurray seeking employment but could only make a living through the lucrative drug trade. Josh Wingrove and Kim Mackrael reported that “since 2005, dozens of young men from Canada’s Somali community have been killed, most of them casualties along a cocaine-dusted corridor between the housing projects of Toronto and the oil patch in Alberta.”

“We’re called the lost generation,” Warsame Adam told the reporters. “We’re hit from every direction, Somalis. It’s like we don’t belong anywhere.”

Many migrants and First Nation people who end up in Fort McMurray have had to endure the compounded challenges of displacement, homelessness and substandard living conditions for years. The true damage caused by the fire will not be known until the smoke settles and the embers cool, yet even a short review of Fort McMurray’s history indicates that economic migrants, the unemployed, First Nation people, drug users and sex workers have and will continue to live in precarious conditions.

North America’s most recent climate crisis

We don’t know how to talk about it yet. Maybe it is still too early.

Elizabeth May doesn’t think so and called it like she saw it. It is no surprise the leader of the Green Party of Canada has come under fire for her comments. “The fact that the forest-fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event,,” said said May to reporters, adding that the firestorm is “very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation.”

“It’s a devastating tragedy right now and I think our focus is always on the right now: to think for the firefighters, for first responders, for people who are losing their homes. It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded that May’s comments were “neither helpful, nor entirely accurate.”

A joint statement made by executive directors from 10 environmental organizations attempted to refocus the debate by emphasizing the necessity of a dialogue around climate change as part of the rebuilding process.

Yet, as one commentator noted, the conversation is only just beginning: “Once these fires are out, there will be much we need to talk about collectively, and we have to make sure those discussions are informed, humane, meaningful, and centre the people who have lost so much, especially those whose loss compounds already difficult lives.”

A disaster foretold

It is projected that the fire that just wiped out most of Canada’s biggest oil town will cost $9 billion. It is so big that it can be seen from space. With all scientific evidence confirming that large forest fires are the new normal, the rebuilding of Fort McMurray must take into account this bird’s-eye view.

We can all empathize with the desire to get back to normal, to have and know safety. Canadians, as a united people, will continue to open their hearts and homes to those in need. Yet helping for those at the forefront of violent and unpredictable climate change must go much further. To adapt we must feel the pain of what we know we have lost. The good thing (and also maybe the saddest) is that Albertans are not alone.

Communities such as Newtok, Alaska, a Yupik village in Alaska, have been adapting to climate change for decades. The intensity of the depleting permafrost and rising sea levels prompted a visit from President Obama.

“What’s happening in Alaska isn’t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don’t take action,” Obama said in a video before his visit. “It’s our wake-up call.”

Communities that have been self-sufficient for thousands of years are forced to compromise their traditional ways of life and do so with silent dignity. They are trading their future for what remains of their traditional life, and risking it all, just so they will not be washed out to sea.

Canada’s climate adaptation plan, which was approved in 2011, is meant to “improve our understanding of climate impacts and to support adaptation planning and decision-making.” So far under the plan, close to $150 million has been invested over the last five years, yet it is unclear how much more prepared communities such as Fort McMurray are to face climate change.

Driving the conversation home

The oil sands is a hotly-contested political issue. But we can agree that we need to do more to reduce the human costs of natural disasters. This means living within the carrying capacity of our rare ecosystems.

The boreal forest, or taiga, is the world’s largest terrestrial biome. It connects Canada with other pieces of the biome, in Iceland, Northern Europe, Russia and parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan.

This part of Canada’s living natural heritage was designed to burn, and it will continue to do so, but with more ferocity. In a 2013 study, a group of researchers stated that “wildfire activity in boreal forests is anticipated to increase dramatically, with far-reaching ecological and socioeconomic consequences.”

Scientists are optimistic that fire activities in the region will eventually stabilize due to the resilient nature of the boreal ecosystem, but not before an unprecedented swath of land burns.

The boreal is Canada’s border with the Arctic. This is the zone around which climate change will play out. The great white north, the epic frontier, it is up in flames and we wonder why?

There is no need for blame because we are way past that. We are in survival mode, and priorities need to be set in order to ensure human life and dignity is maintained as we do battle against collective missteps. From here on out, one crisis will lead to another and another to the next.

The fire is no exception.

“The effects of forest fires on the carbon cycle are very dramatic. Fires explain about 80 percent of the change in carbon storage over the past millennium, and a large amount of carbon has been lost from this ecosystem because of increasing forest fires,” said Feng Sheng Hu, professor at the University of Illinois, a few months ago in a release about a study of forest fires in Alaska. “This area has burned more than any other place in the boreal forests of North America. We chose the area for this study because we thought it could be an early indicator of the future.”

Shaping the conversation

On April 21, Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, announced a new initiative to have Canadians help direct a national clean energy and adaption plan.

People have until June 1 to submit their ideas online. Many people have opinions about what could have been done differently in order to avoid such a colossal disaster. Many communities, especially First Nations, are not out of the woods yet. They deserve our compassion and generosity, especially when we have the awareness that time is no longer on our side.

What should Canada do next to protect northern residents from the climate crisis? Should Fort McMurray be rebuilt? Should this disaster be reframed as an opportunity to make the hard decisions? Of course there are no clear answers, but we have to at least talk about them, even if anonymously through a government website.

The rest of the world is watching to see what Canadians will do next. With courage and resilience in our hearts, we can only hope that the fire provides northern communities with fertile ground on which upon which to rebuild a sustainable vision.