On Monday, strong southerly winds and freakishly hot temperatures near 80 degrees (F) combined to fan the still-raging Fort McMurray Fire in Alberta, Canada. The monstrous, climate change enhanced, blaze swelled. And by the end of the day it had expanded to cover more than 354,000 hectares, 1,360 square miles, or an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
In a little more than a week, a fire that emergency response personnel are calling ‘The Beast’ had once again doubled in size.
(The Fort McMurray Fire again exploded on Monday — invading tar sands facilities even as the eastern sections of the fire came to within 7 kilometers of the Saskatchewan border. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
As the fire expanded, it swept north and east. Casting off choking, dense smoke, the fire spiked air quality ratings to 38 (a 10 is considered dangerous), forcing emergency response personnel, workers, and those few people now inhabiting the blackened town of Fort McMurray to wear particulate filtration masks. The bad air quality caused some officials to speculate that the return of more than 80,000 residents to the town could be delayed. The evacuees had been forced from their homes by the fires during early May — a wave of climate change refugees that have now faced a three week period of dislocation. But any thought of residents returning was swiftly overwhelmed by the rapidly-expanding fire itself.
8,000 More Evacuations, Oil Worker Camp Burned
As the town of Fort McMurray choked in the smoke of resurgent fires, walls of flame moving north and east again threatened tar sands facilities. Firefighters scrambled to widen fire breaks as fires moving as fast as 40 kilometers per hour leapt defensive lines and entered some of the industrial sections.
Ironically-named Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer, described the completely untenable situation:
“Yesterday the fire was showing extreme behaviour and lots of smoke in the air. We had to pull the firefighters off the line because it was so dangerous out there.”
The entire industrial zone fell swiftly under threat and by late Monday more than 8,000 tar sands workers from a total of 19 camps had been ordered to evacuate. By Tuesday morning, the Blacksand Lodge — a temporary residence for oil workers manning tar sands facilities located 35 kilometers to the north of Fort McMurrary — had succumbed to the flames. A large facility, the Blacksand camp provided 665 residential units for workers. In total, it’s estimated that about 6,000 workers remain in tar sands facilities and emergency responders are coordinating to organize an air evacuation if necessary.
(Fort McMurray Fire extent with hotspots as of early Monday on May 16. The region affected by the fire as of this time was truly vast — stretching nearly 50 miles long and 30 miles wide. Through late Wednesday, the massive blaze is likely to again claim more ground. Image source: Wildfire Today.)
Fire Situation to Remain Extreme on Tuesday and Wednesday
Southerly winds and far above average air temperatures are again expected to worsen fire conditions on Tuesday and Wednesday. Highs are predicted to hit near 80 in Fort McMurray on both days and dry conditions are expected to dominate. So continued rapid growth of the McMurray Fire over this period is likely. With fires now on three sides of the industrial zone and within sections of the tar sands facilites, we can expect a continued threat to the oil production zone over at least the next 48 hours.
Long range forecasts indicate that warmer than normal conditions are likely to continue over the next week. However, rainfall predicted on Thursday and Saturday could again slow the fire’s growth — giving firefighters another shot at containing this massive blaze. It’s worth noting, though, that the fire is now so large and intense that it will likely take weeks to months to extinguish.
Extreme Fires in the Context of Human-Caused Climate Change
Overall, more than 530,000 hectares have now burned throughout Canada. This total is more than 24 times the amount of land consumed in fires by this time last year. During the 20th Century, large May burn extents of the kind Canada is experiencing during 2016 were unheard of. For much of Canada — May tended to be a cool month featuring temperatures in the 40s, 50s and 60s (F). Not the 70s and 80s (F) that have tended to crop up so frequently this year. Fires tended to be sparse and small — if they ignited at all. But the heat, a growing number of dead trees, and a thawing zone of carbon-rich and flammable permafrost have all added to the fire danger. Evidence that a very rapid pace of warming and related damage to Canada’s forests is having an extraordinary and dangerous impact.
Over the coming seven days, abnormal 60-70 degree (F) temperatures are expected to expand throughout even the far northwestern regions of Canada — reaching all the way to where the Arctic Ocean meets the Mackenzie Delta and spiking fire hazards within that thawing permafrost zone. Such huge extents of extreme fire hazard over northern and far-northern regions that typically experience much, much cooler weather is a feature that is absolutely consistent with effects resulting from human-forced warming. A warming that continues to be made worse by the extraction of carbon-based fuels like those unearthed at the tar sands facilities now endangered by the very fires of climate change they helped to ignite.
Hat tip to DT Lange
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