Monster Fort McMurray Fire Slowed Sunday by Light Rain — Despite Progress, Officials Expect Blaze to Burn for Months

“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.

Fort McMurray Fire Map

(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.

Smoke plume from Fort McMurray Fire Reaches US East Coast

(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.

Winnipeg Fire with Hotspots

(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.

Links:

CBC Live Fire Updates

Fort McMurray’s Fires and the Dramatic Images to Come

Oil Prices Tumble as Traders Reassess Fort McMurray Fire Impact

Fort McMurray Weather Forecast

Earth Nullschool

NOAA

Warm North Pacific Winds to Usher in Brutal Arctic Heatwave this Week

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

Water Bombers Bring Relief to Expanding Fire Along Ontario-Manitoba Border

The Age of Alaskan Wildfires

LANCE-MODIS

How to Help Fort McMurray Fire Victims

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Cate

Leave a comment

76 Comments

  1. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    Why this could finally be the election where climate change matters

    “The Clinton campaign sees polling showing profound political vulnerability on climate for the Republicans generally and Trump specifically, so the Clinton camp intends to push climate themes aggressively, ” adds Paul Bledsoe, who worked on climate issues in the former Clinton White House and is now an independent energy consultant. “They see GOP climate denial fitting into a larger narrative of Trump and the Republicans being willing to deny factual information injurious to the American public just because it doesn’t fit into Tea Party ideology. That will be a meta-theme of the campaign, and climate fits into it.”

    Chris Mooney

    Reply
  2. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    I saw an interview yesterday with a firefighter , these woods have areas where the “duff” is 2 meters deep.

    Duff layer
    A layer of moderately to highly decomposed leaves, needles, fine twigs, and other organic material found between the mineral soil surface and litter layer of forest soil.

    Reply
    • Well, a 2 meter thick duff would definitely enhance the long-term fire risk. Thanks for this info, Bob.

      Reply
      • Colorado Bob

         /  May 9, 2016

        And there’s no water in it this year. The old trope about fire and woods burning hand in hand , it’s not in play anymore because once upon a time that layer was wet or frozen, even in August

        When it does rain, a huge amount of ash is going right into the rivers. Not just the trees but whole forest floor.

        Reply
        • More harm coming for the oceans, then. That’s climate change food for dead zones if I’ve ever seen it.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain

         /  May 10, 2016

        Just listening to a report on mass mangrove death in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, cause unknown, but suspected to be the result of the hot, dry, summer just past. Came after a story concerning the wide-scale land clearing in Queensland in recent years, under the far, far Right Newman regime (a less charming Cruz, as a likeness). This despite stopping land clearing was a ‘promise’ made when we received our outrageously favourable treatment in the Kyoto process. Of course we remain the biggest coal exporter, and similar land clearing regress is being planned in New South Wales. Surely this must be deliberate. A few years ago people proposed arguing for a boycott of tourism in this country, to try to impose some pressure on our destructive regimes, but now that the prime attraction, the Great Barrier Reef is kaput, it seems less plausible. There’s a bitter irony.

        Reply
  3. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    Southern Africa has been in a terrible drought. But Durban just set a new 24 hour rainfall record.

    The SA Weather Service says 126 millimetres of rain was recorded from Saturday into Sunday at Merebank in Durban South.
    The previous record figure at that station was just over 110 millimetres in 1971.

    The showers, however were isolated on the coast with no significant rainfall recorded inland.

    Reply
    • Ouch. Weather at the extremes again…

      OT to your comment, but South Africa now has its own divest from fossil fuels campaign and they’ve put together a pretty smart video:

      Reply
    • Mulga Mumblebrain

       /  May 10, 2016

      Bob, we just got more rain in a few hours than the last seven months. Ground went from rock hard to mud in one after-noon. Rain like a curtain, unlike any I’ve seen here in fifteen years.

      Reply
  4. climatehawk1

     /  May 9, 2016

    Tweeting.

    Reply
  5. Zack Labe ‏@ZLabe 2h2 hours ago

    Well above normal temperatures across the #Arctic & northern Canada so far this month (CFSR reanalysis, May to-date)

    Reply
  6. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    The boiling frog turns into the leap frog .
    Genius. .

    That’s a great way to message. That SA video gets better the more I think about it.

    Reply
  7. JPL

     /  May 9, 2016

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday denied a permit to a $700 million project to build the nation’s largest coal-export terminal in northwest Washington state.

    “The Lummi Nation last year asked the Corps, the federal agency overseeing the permitting process, to deny permits for the project. They argued that tribal members fish in the area, and that the federal government has a legal obligation to protect fishing rights secured in an 1855 treaty. Like many tribes, the Lummi signed a treaty with the U.S. government in which it ceded its land but reserved the right to hunt and fish in “usual and accustomed” areas.”

    Reply
    • That’s fantastic news.

      It’s worth noting that wind and solar combined now employ 5 times the number of people that the coal industry employs. Switching coal based fossil fuel generation to wind and solar would generate jobs on a scale of 2-3 renewable energy jobs for each fossil fuel job lost. If we’re looking at social stresses due to the energy transition, it’s really just an issue of jobs training and finding spots for people who once worked in the old industry. It’s something wise governments would plan for.

      Reply
      • climatehawk1

         /  May 10, 2016

        My guess is that many, many more jobs were lost in the gutting of labor laws and the rise of the “right to work” states in the Sun Belt. I don’t seem to recall anyone calling for massive job retraining programs then. Depends on whose ox is being gored.

        Reply
        • Well, for my part, I though that right to work (starve) was terrible and should have never been enacted in the first place and is one of the reasons for the systemic inequality that is now firmly in place and that has been so harmful to so many Americans.

          What I support is this notion that we need to take care of people through the energy transition. And if we have those values in place maybe people will realize how obnoxious and ridiculous right to so work really is.

  8. Cate

     /  May 9, 2016

    Folks in Alberta are wearing mitts and winter jackets today….it’s only May in Canada, after all, but the cold front won’t last. The media bus is conveying live video from Fort Mac as we speak. The randomness of the destruction resembles what we see of the worst of the mid-west tornadoes on our TV screens.

    Robert, thank you so much for the coverage you have given this terrible fire. Your analysis is, as ever, deeply-considered, wide-ranging, smart, and thorough, and of course, brilliantly crafted as a piece of writing. Thanks so much for the recent hat tips—it’s always a pleasure to come up with something of interest to throw into the mix—, and thanks to everyone who contributes to this thoughtful and passionate conversation, thank you all for your good sense, your intelligence, your wisdom, and your humour.

    Reply
    • Cate

       /  May 9, 2016

      And CB—thank you for, among all else, the music.😀

      Reply
    • Thank you, Cate. You provide a clarity and a conscience that’s a real tough combo to find these days. You’re a huge add to the team here. And to everyone — I’d like to say that you each make this blog stronger and that I’m proud to be here working on this crisis with you. As tough as things are, as tough as they’ll get, at least we’re not isolated and alone. At least we’re all doing everything we can to pitch in and make a push for a better outcome. From what I’ve seen, and I’m sure you guys agree, the current path is unacceptable.

      Reply
  9. – ExxonMobil

    Mobil’s Chief Executive Warned of CO2 From Oil Sands Fuels in 1982
    Concerned that carbon-heavy fuels would speed up global warming, the CEO put his trust in the United Nations and federal scientists [James Hansen, et al.] to point the way to solutions.

    The CEO of Mobil Corporation warned in 1982 that burning Canadian oil sands fuels could lead to a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with calamitous effects. His concerns provide further evidence that oil industry executives were aware of the climate impact of their products decades ago, and of the dangers of exploiting unconventional reserves with a higher carbon footprint.

    Mobil’s chief executive, Rawleigh Warner, Jr., took notice of the increasing production of tar sands, oil shales and liquefied coal in an article published by the United Nations Environment Program. He was writing 15 years after Suncor Energy began producing oil sands from the first large-scale mine in Alberta, and less than a decade after the Arab oil embargo propelled industry to search for alternative fuels.

    http://insideclimatenews.org/news/09052016/mobil-oil-chief-executive-warned-climate-change-co2-oil-sands-fuels-tar-sands-1982-exxon

    Reply
  10. Cate

     /  May 9, 2016

    Fort Mac fire chief Darby Allen just now in press conference:

    “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 travelled. We will be rewriting the book on fighting these fires, this fire will force us to rewrite the book”

    Reply
  11. Cate

     /  May 9, 2016

    Excellent article here on the work of Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire and director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire at the University of Alberta. References climate change/El Nino, peat burning, and extreme fire, etc.

    https://uofa.ualberta.ca/news-and-events/newsarticles/2016/may/fort-mcmurray-blaze-among-most-extreme-of-wildfires

    Reply
  12. The poor old Athabasca River! Burning cities are far more toxic than burning forests, so the next few rains will deliver a pretty serious amount of contaminated runoff. It will be another chemical burden on a river that is already poisoned to some degree by the bitumen industry. Not a good time to be a fish in Lake Athabasca, nor an indigenous inhabitant who eats them.

    Reply
  13. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    Sweet Jesus , whats next ?

    Reply
  14. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    Drainage basins of Canada

    Reply
  15. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    windjammer

    Has raised at excellent point. The list of the modern world that is burnt to a crisp. It goes on and on and on. Car batteries, car paint, car tires, pbc plumbing, carpet, bug sprays.

    The list is as long as the modern world. All of it burnt .

    Reply
  16. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2016

    Athabasca River

    The Athabasca River travels 1,231 km (765 mi) before draining into the Peace-Athabasca Delta near Lake Athabasca south of Fort Chipewyan. From there, its waters flow north as Rivière des Rochers, then joining the Peace River to form the Slave River that empties into Great Slave Lake and discharges through the Mackenzie River system into the Arctic Ocean. The cumulative drainage area is 95,300 km2 (36,800 sq mi).[8]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athabasca_River

    Reply
  17. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2016

    Like washing finger prints at crime scene

    Reply
  18. mlparrish

     /  May 10, 2016

    Re: the dry fuel available for fire. Someone said a conifer is a torch on a stick, and that is the live ones.

    Watching one of the videos here of the Fort MacMurray fire, I was able to see one area in which perhaps a quarter to one third of the trees in the path of the blaze were dead, mixed in with those still green. It was similar to what I saw when I visited Alaska in 2008 (I have a photo of a Russian graveyard where the forest in the back is obviously dying), and then I understood the number, ferocity, and intractability of the fires now flaring. Of course, I do not know how much of the northern forests are like that, but since I have seen photos of BC with half the mountainsides shown covered in swaths of dead trees, I would guess most of it. Someone correct me if I am wrong. If so, I don’t see any reason why all of the dryer areas won’t eventually burn, and sooner rather than later.

    I also noticed that the fire breaks around the tar sands facilities as described in the reports sound extremely good.

    Reply
    • Cate

       /  May 10, 2016

      Stretches of dead boreal forest can indicate damage by drought, disease, or pests—some of which are getting a boost from warmer winters and expanding ranges. Dry boreal species, turned red (“blasty boughs” in my neck of the woods)–black spruce, balsam fir, etc—-generally burn very hot and fast.

      http://www.commondreams.org/views/2010/03/16/great-forest-die

      Reply
      • mlparrish

         /  May 10, 2016

        Thanks for the article, Cate. I would have otherwise never come across it.

        Reply
    • Cate mentions many of the factors and they have a brutal synergy for killing those trees — trees which are not adapted to live in the temperatures that are now moving into the region. Trees that cannot move with the rapidly changing climate zones. As they die, they produce a huge store of carbon conditioned for burning.

      As for the fire breaks. They were massive, layered defensive works. Break after break after break. That’s probably what saved the tar sands facilities. Saturday conditions were pretty amazingly bad.

      Reply
      • mlparrish

         /  May 10, 2016

        I guess I am preaching to the choir, but the full enormity finally hit me on a personal level. Whenever I mention the sorry state of the forests here in NC, and it’s nothing compared to the west, whether to family, friends, city or county forest wardens, they dismiss, explain away, or minimize it. Our old trees are dying branch-tip by branch-tip, rather than by mountainsides.
        Except for the cedars, the cedars are dying wholesale.

        Reply
    • Griffin

       /  May 10, 2016

      Hi mlparrish. The forests here in MA are a dying mess as well. The floor is littered with the tangled branches and trunks that have fallen. Some time ago, someone here linked a post on Gail Zawacki’s blog. I visited her page and was immediately lost in the massive amount of links to tree health that she has there. For a long time, I really hoped that she was nuts. Unfortunately, it was I who was simply ignorant to what was taking place on a worldwide scale.
      http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/

      Reply
      • mlparrish

         /  May 10, 2016

        Griffin,
        I had wondered about the northern tier of states, but it sounds like us. I had hoped the die-offs were patchy, but there seems no doubt it is a global phenomenon. You do have to know where to look. Worried about my trees I have googled tree deaths but did not come across enough information to fill in the blanks until the readers here did.
        Thanks to everyone, you perform an indispensable service.

        Reply
  19. Don’t look now but:

    Reply
    • Just amazing — the smoke, the fractured and flowing ice…
      It should be a backdrop to every news/weather cast or …

      Reply
  20. Reply
  21. Zack Labe ‏@ZLabe 1h1 hour ago

    Latest NMME run continues above normal temperatures this summer across much of North America (JJA 2m temp anomalies)

    Reply
  22. Reply
  23. Vic

     /  May 10, 2016

    Following several months of exposure to extreme sea surface temps, hundreds of kilometers of mangrove habitat along Australia’s Gulf of Carpenteria shoreline appears to have perished. These diebacks extend up to one kilometer inland.

    Reply
  24. I don’t know if this link has been posted on one of the other posts, so here goes:

    Fort McMurray wildfire: Media survey damage on escorted tour

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/fort-mcmurray-wildfire-tour-rachel-notley-1.3574271

    The amazing thing is they managed to save 85% of the buildings. That on top of the unbelievably successful evacuation, and that’s some amazing work from the police and the firefighters. The people of Ft McMurray, and all of Canada, really owe them a big debt of gratitude.

    Reply
  25. Spike

     /  May 10, 2016

    Fires in E Russia

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: