The U.S. press largely overlooked the harrowing story of the Fort McMurray wildfire, in my home province of Alberta, Canada, which burned for the first week in May.

Not that the U.S. press is unacquainted with Fort McMurray, home to the Alberta oil sands that are frequently derided for contributing to climate change.

The fire that broke out on May 2 quickly surrounded Fort McMurray, as this animated map of the fire shows. It was terrifying to watch the fire engulf this remote, more than 600 miles north from the Alberta–U.S. border, knowing that there is only one narrow way out, Alberta Highway 63. When the fire blew out of control, Mounties escorted convoys of 50 cars each, through thick smoke and pausing when Highway 63 was blocked by fire. In the end, there was a complete evacuation of 88,000 people from Fort McMurray and a dozen neighboring towns. Two teenaged cousins died in a car accident as their family evacuated, but there were no fire deaths.

At a time of record distrust of government, the last ten days have demonstrated that governments can do things right. I saw the Alberta premier (the equivalent of a U.S. state governor) speak about the Fort McMurray oil sands in Washington, DC only four days before the fire started, no one in the room imagining the disaster about to befall the region. Her government, as well as local and federal officials, mounted a terrific response that saved almost all of the energy infrastructure and 90% of Fort McMurray. Officials credited lessons learned during the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire in Northern Alberta for preparing for the successful evacuation of Fort McMurray. Of course, it is the job of governments to respond to natural disasters, but they can fail to do so effectively and they can fail to learn from the past. That’s not what we saw in Alberta in the past few days.

But also crucial has been the philanthropic response to the disaster. Albertans have taken thousands of evacuees into their homes. Businesses are offering evacuees everything from free prescriptions and food to discounted car repairs, and more.

In an interesting contrast with the U.S. approach, there is no Canadian equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) taking the lead in caring for evacuees—this role is entrusted to the Canadian Red Cross. Canadians have given more than $67 million to the Red Cross’ appeal for this emergency. Instead of government trying to care for evacuees, the Alberta and Canadian federal governments are bolstering the Red Cross’ lead role in this area by each matching private contributions to the Red Cross.

And, instead of providing evacuees with goods, services, and shelter, the Red Cross is giving out cash—for now totaling $50 million of the $67 million in donations—to evacuees to spend as they see fit. A family of four would have received a $1,800 Red Cross deposit into their bank account this week, in addition to $3,500 in debit cards from the Alberta government, certainly not enough to make the family’s losses whole but enough to meet many immediate needs. Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Suave described this as “the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one.” This model might work in the United States better than a FEMA-led disaster response.

The wildfire has been heartbreaking to watch. But the response—on all levels, from the evacuees, their fellow citizens, businesses, nonprofits, and government—has been inspiring.


Photo By Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo - Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (user:Tallgirl), CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia