The Fort McMurray fire is an important opportunity for learning and discussion

When disasters like the Fort McMurray fire strike, our minds and hearts tend to become consumed by a singular focus on the human toll and what we might do to alleviate some of that loss and suffering.

At the same time, we push back against the people in our community who seek to explore the larger context of the disaster and find lessons and takeaways that we can draw on to improve how we co-exist and structure our society. Refusing to engage in those conversations in the moment or shortly thereafter—because we think they are political or disrespectful—puts us at risk of missing an opportunity to learn from and fix what we are not doing so well.

That’s not to say we should indulge the haters and trolls engaged in victim-blaming, or who use the crisis to take cheap shots at their favourite political punching bag. But we are all capable of doing at least two things at once: we can feel for the victims and help them at the same time as having a conversation about the bigger-picture implications.

This kind of crisis reinforces the value of government, public services and public servants. Newscasts and social media feeds have been full of stories of the amazing work being done by people in the public service: the doctors, nurses and other health specialists who remained at the hospital to ensure patients’ safety while their own houses burned and their families were evacuated; the police, first responders and fire fighters who were running towards the centre of the disaster zone while everyone else was going the other way; the school principal who remained with her students and ensured every one of them got to safety despite the needs of her own family; the public broadcasters who remained live and on the ground until the last possible minute, and even then continued to provide non-stop coverage of the disaster and instruction to evacuees; the government cabinet, ministerial staff and office workers who worked over 24 hours straight to ensure that firefighting, rescue, health, infrastructure and evacuation efforts were all coordinated and properly staffed, while at the same time keeping Albertans informed of what was happening, where they could seek and offer help.

In the midst of this economic recession it has become fashionable to question the costs of our government, public services and public infrastructure, and to criticize the pay levels and work ethic of our public servants, but a crisis like this serves to highlight why these costs are worth it and necessary, and what the impacts might be of not properly funding those services in the first place. Situations like this remind us why we pay taxes in the first place, and it is important that we carry this understanding forward beyond the crisis.

Of course, people other than public servants have been stepping up in response to this emergency. There are endless stories of individuals, small businesses and entire communities coming together to do whatever they can—providing gas and meals, offering free shelter, donating money and supplies.

Our politics in this province is often grounded in a mythology that Albertans are fundamentally rugged individualists who prefer to take care of their own needs and don’t need or want the larger collective. This crisis has shown the opposite: Albertans are community-minded, generous and believe strongly in the power of the collective to promote the public good. We need to change the story we—and others—tell about ourselves, and make sure that’s the story informing how we view taxation, government, and public and community services.

We can’t continue to ignore the elephant in the room. It is impossible and naive to draw a direct line from any one weather event or natural disaster to climate change, but scientists have been telling us for years that a changing climate means Alberta will face more frequent and severe extreme weather events like tornadoes and floods, greater and longer droughts, and more frequent and intense wildfires. We have seen all of these things come to pass in the last few years.

We must be prepared for these disasters. That means investing in the necessary infrastructure and public services to facilitate rapid response on numerous fronts, and building community capacity to meet the needs that arise when these disasters strike. It also means taking seriously the imperative to take concrete actions limiting climate change at home and worldwide—or these situations will get much, much worse.

The Fort McMurray fire is a horrible tragedy. The response of Albertans as a whole has been beyond stellar. The best way to honour that loss and sacrifice is by making sure that we don’t write this disaster off as a one-time event, but rather keep the larger context in our minds and our conversations, and ensure that we are able to take those learnings forward with us to keep making Alberta a better place. Our long-term sustainability and well-being depend on it. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

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