Heartless responses to a disaster

Some recent comments about the Fort McMurray wildfire show a level of insensitivity difficult to comprehend.

Some recent comments about the Fort McMurray wildfire show a level of insensitivity difficult to comprehend.

The wildfire has burned 248,500 hectares, destroyed 2,400 buildings and resulted in the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the northern Alberta city and the surrounding area.

This is the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history. Rebuilding will be a long, difficult and expensive process.

The level of devastation is difficult to fathom. So is the level of heartlessness shown by some.

In a Twitter comment, posted days after the fire started, Tom Moffatt, a former Alberta New Democratic Party candidate, stated, “karmic #climatechange fire burns CDN oilsands city.”

He later removed the comment and apologized for it.

Another tweet, from Blake Siefken of Vancouver, took an even harsher tone. “I’m glad the #FortMacFire is happening in the province most responsible for the climate change that caused the fire in the first place.”

Both men were suspended from their jobs, Moffatt from the Town of Taber, Alta. and Siefken from The Electric Playground in Vancouver.

To suggest, as Moffatt did, that the fire is a “karmic” event is to suggest that the people of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area deserved to lose their homes in this way.

And Siefken’s comment places blame without compassion.

Taking pleasure in the misfortune of others is beyond disgusting. The sneering, gloating tone of these comments and others is an insult to those who have lost everything as a result of the fire.

Wildfires are not just statistical facts. There is a human face to every disaster. People are affected and their needs must be addressed.

This is a time when care and compassion are needed. The first question to ask is, “How can we help?”

Many Canadians answered with generosity. The donations of money and supplies are impressive, as are the efforts to organize emergency shelter and other essentials for those who have been displaced.

Moffatt and Siefken didn’t respond in this way. Instead, they used the wildfire to raise the topic of climate change.

It’s an important topic which needs to be addressed.

According to information from the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, 2015 set a new record high annual temperature worldwide. Fifteen of the 16 warmest years on record have occurred during the 21st century.

Last year also marked the 39th consecutive year since 1977, that the annual temperature has been above the 20th century average.

It’s a serious matter, but it should be discussed calmly and reasonably.

The summer of 2015 was a bad fire season in B.C., with several wildfires near populated areas in our region.

Even in places not directly affected by fires, dense smoke filled the sky.

This year, the mild winter and dry spring are creating conditions which could once again lead to serious fires in our region and throughout the province.

Many of us in the Okanagan Valley can understand what a wildfire can do.

The Garnet Fire in Penticton in 1994, the Giant’s Head Mountain Fire in Summerland in 1996, the Okanagan Mountain Fire in 2003, the West Kelowna Fires of 2009 and many others have touched our communities.

We need a reasoned dialogue about wildfires, how to respond and how to reduce the risk or minimize the impact.

And more importantly, we need to show compassion when a disaster strikes.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.