“I’ve never seen anything like this. No-one has ever seen anything like this fire, the way it started, the way it spread, the way it traveled. We will be rewriting the book on fighting these fires, this fire will force us to rewrite the book” — Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen in a News Conference this afternoon.
On Saturday, the Fort McMurray fire rapidly expanded — threatening the greenhouse gas emitting tar sands facilities north of town and making a race toward the Saskatchewan border. But by Sunday, cooler temperatures and very light rain in some areas (with accumulations of less than 1 mm), helped to stymie what, until that time, was an entirely uncontrollable blaze.
Fire’s Northward Expansion Halted Before Tar Sands Facilities Were Significantly Damaged
Fires ran directly to the boundaries of the Nexen tar sands facility. But heroic efforts by firefighters stopped the blaze there and prevented all but minor damage to structures and to large vessels containing volatile compounds. In total, the massive firefighting effort — now undertaken by more than 500 personnel — was able to check the northward advance of the flames on Saturday. By Sunday and Monday, a shift in the winds toward the west and northwest again drove the fires eastward.
(The Fort McMurray fire has grown to more than 16 times its original size. Northwest winds continue to push its expansion toward the Saskatchewan border. Cooler weather and very light rains helped slow the fire Sunday. But with no rain in the forecast until May 23rd and with more warm weather on the way, fire conditions may again worsen this week and on into the next. Image source: CBC News Live Updates.)
Current active large fires near Fort McMurray are about 16 miles to the south and west of town between the Athabasca River and Route 63, near the shores of lake Gregorie, and across the Clearwater River just to the north of the Fort McMurray airport. Though still somewhat threatening, overall fire activity in the area is the lowest since Tuesday of last week. Further to the east, large fires continue to burn toward Saskatchewan and, with winds expected to blow off and on out of the northwest over the coming 5 days, it’s likely that this massive blaze will expand outside the borders of Alberta. To this point, the fire edge is now less than 18 miles away from Saskatchewan and winds are still blowing at moderate strength out of the northwest.
The Damage Assessment Begins — No Word on When 90,000 Climate Change Refugees Can Go Home
Overall, officials are reporting that 161,000 hectares have burned so far (or about 620 square miles). Since Tuesday, the area consumed by the flames had grown explosively to roughly 16 times the fire’s original size. Cooler conditions this week should help to keep explosive growth in check. However, by Thursday and Friday, temperatures are again expected to warm — generating an increasing fire hazard for later this week. In addition, weather forecasts call for little to no chance of rain until May 23. So the region is expected to continue to experience extraordinarily dry conditions — conditions that helped contribute to the extreme fire hazard in the first place.
(The vast Fort McMurray Fire has produced an immense smoke plume that has traversed Canada, crossed the Northern and Central US and is now entering the airs over the Atlantic Ocean off the US East Coast. Image source: NOAA.)
Sunday and Monday’s lull in the blaze has allowed officials to begin to take stock of the extreme and extensive damage around Fort McMurray. In addition to the 1,600 structures destroyed by the blaze, many, many buildings were reported damaged. Fort McMurray’s electrical system is completely knocked out — with emergency facilities running on generator power. The city’s water supply — though continuing to flow from the city’s still intact water treatment plant — remains unsafe to drink. Officials will begin releasing photos of the destruction over the next two days and have warned of ‘dramatic images.’ As for the nearly 90,000 people made into climate change refugees by this blaze, there is still no word on when they will be able to return home. And considering such extensive damage and a still active and dangerous fire ranging the region — that answer could be weeks to months (find out how to help the fire victims here).
Impacts to Fort McMurray’s and Canada’s tar sands industry has been notably substantial. In total, more than 1 million barrels per day of oil production is now off line and is expected to remain so for about a month — even if the blaze does not re-emerge to threaten tar sands facilities. In addition, firefighting officials expect it to take months to get this massive fire completely under control. Even with the cooler conditions and very light rains Sunday and Monday, intense hotspots and very strong fire fronts are still expanding outward from the burn scar zone.
Widespread Large Fires in the Upper Latitude Regions of the Northern Hemisphere are Conditions Consistent with Human-Caused Climate Change
Conditions consistent with human-forced climate change remain in effect for Fort McMurray and for most of Northwestern Canada. In total, nearly 150 fires now rage throughout this Arctic country and in Alberta alone an army of more than 1,500 firefighters are now battling 32 wildfires including the Fort McMurry blaze. In British Columbia, 79 strongly active wildfires have completely absorbed that region’s firefighting resources. And on the Ontario-Manitoba border near Winnipeg, a fire exploding to 40,000 hectares has forced more than 125 people to flee and sparked a massive firefighting effort as that blaze grew four times in size since Friday.
(Another very large fire — now 40,000 hectares in size — threatens the region near Winnipeg. As of Monday, more than 125 people were forced to evacuate due to the rapidly expanding blaze. Above we see this fire along with hotspots as seen by the NASA-MODIS satellite sensor. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)
Around the world, wildfires are now erupting in northern regions and permafrost zones along the Mongolia-Russia border and in the area of Lake Baikal — which has suffered from a decadal drought and very severe warming. As May progresses into June, we can expect this fire zone to creep northward — eventually involving much of the permafrost zone itself. And, to this point, a powerful Arctic heatwave will bring with it increasing risks of fire to Alaska and the Northwest Territory as temperatures are expected to rise up to 30 degrees F above average (into the upper 60s and lower 70s F) there later this week.
Overall, human-forced climate change caused by fossil fuel burning greatly increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires by spreading heat and drought into regions where vegetation is unused to such conditions. In Arctic countries like Canada, new fuels come from thawing permafrost which forms a combustible peat-like layer and creates conditions where the ground itself can burn. Such heat and thaw has contributed to much larger wildfires which have become ten times more prevalent in the Arctic since 1950 and as the world has warmed by more than 1 C above 1880s averages. Continuing to burn fossil fuels will further intensify these already extreme conditions. One need not point out that this is the first time an entire Canadian city has been forced to evacuate due to wildfires. But with climate change starting to come into full force, such instances are far more likely to happen again and again — not just in Canada, but around the world.
Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego
Hat Tip to DT Lange
Hat Tip to Cate