“Please Get Us Out” — Hothouse Wildfire Threatens to Engulf Tar Sands City of Fort McMurray, 88,000 Evacuated, 1,600 Structures Burned

Emergency situation now ongoing in Fort McMurray, Alberta where a massive wildfire in this northern climate zone is engulfing the city. This is a very dangerous developing situation that includes hundreds of structure fires and what is now the largest evacuation in the history of Alberta — the first time an entire Canadian city has ever had to evacuate due to a wildfire. Frequent updates to follow (refresh page for new updates).

(BBC report on the latest news from Fort McMurray.)

Conditions Consistent With Climate Change Fan Massive Fire Invading City Made by Tar Sands Production

Monday, a massive wildfire began to encroach upon the City of Fort McMurray, Alberta — a region of Canada known for its production of the hothouse gas emitting tar sands. An emission that has almost certainly contributed to increasing fire danger to the city during recent years and decades as tar sands crude is one of the highest carbon fuels now in production (See: IPCC — How Climate Change is Worsening Wildfires).

The McMurray Fire slowly expanded over the weekend under unseasonably hot and dry conditions. It surprised fire officials by jumping the Athabasca River on Monday night and, with a switch in the wind toward the southwest, began to approach and invade northward into the city on Tuesday. By early evening Wednesday, the fire still raged out of control — swelling to more than 10,000 hectares as more than 1,600 buildings fell victim to the flames.

Reporter Reid Fiest in a tweet at 12:05 PM Wednesday briefly described what is now a city under existential threat:

The catastrophic wildfire is 10,000 ha and resisted all the suppression efforts. Today’s weather could cause explosive conditions.

And by 2:37 PM, fire activity within the city had become so intense that the roof of the Fort McMurray emergency operations center began to smolder and those working within were ordered to evacuate.

Extreme Temperatures in Northwest Canada

(It was hotter in Northwest Canada Tuesday than it was in the Central US. Extreme heat related to human-forced warming that contributed to a dangerous developing fire situation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The southerly winds and hot airs fanning such explosive conditions ran up behind a high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream pushing temperatures into the upper 80s and lower 90s (F) — readings that are about 30-35 degrees (F) above average for this time of year — over a broad swath of Northwestern Canada on Tuesday. The heat-baked air wrung out moisture and drew humidity readings into the very dry 20 percent range. Similar extreme fire conditions continued into Wednesday — with temperatures in Fort McMurray hitting a very unseasonal 87 degrees — as the fire now burns through the city proper.

Clouds of My Grandchildren over Fort McMurray

Pyrocumulus cloud over Fort McMurray on Tuesday. Clouds of this kind can form in the strong updraft zone of powerful wildfires. During recent years, pyrocumulus formation over the Arctic and other northern regions during spring and summer has been very intense and widespread. A climate change enhanced phenomena that could rightly be called ‘The Clouds of My Grandchildren.’ Image source: Randy Vanberg.

To the north, a very early recession of sea ice in the Beaufort and an opening up of waters there likely assisted this Jet Stream anomaly, a related strong high pressure system, extreme high temperatures, and hot southerly winds that pushed fire conditions in Alberta to unprecedented levels. The south winds, far, far hotter than normal temperatures and very low humidity contributed to a very dangerous situation fanning flames as they encroached upon and invaded the city — burning structures, igniting oil fires and forcing motorists to abandon their vehicles. All while a massive pyrocumulus cloud expanded — casting a dark shadow and dumping soot over this bitumen-laden region of Alberta.

For this region of Canada, these are highly abnormal conditions consistent with weather pattern alterations forced by human-caused climate change. “This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” noted Mike Flannigan a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta who was cited in a report on the climate context of the McMurray Fire on Wednesday.

All Fort McMurray City Residents Ordered to Flee

As of latest reports, all of Fort McMurray’s city proper has been placed under mandatory evacuation orders. That makes for a total of more than 88,000 people evacuated so far. Including outlying suburbs and migrant residents, the city likely is home to a total of more than 100,000 souls — a good number of whom will also be forced to leave. A fire-driven evacuation of this size — basically resulting in the mandatory emptying of an entire city — has never occurred before in the history of Alberta. And the odd nature of this event is magnified by the fact that a very large early May fire — a period when fire activity is typically far more quiescent — is the cause.

Please Get Us Out

(Abasand resident pleas for assistance as fires encroach.)

Many residents, like Jenine in the tweet above, had to scramble to vehicles as fires approached their neighborhoods on Tuesday, spurring some to turn to social media in order to plea for assistance. The proximity of the flames was so close that many residents were unable to bring any personal belongings. With the entire city being ordered to evacuate, both lanes of Highway 63 were used for outbound traffic. Even so, motorists remained stuck in gridlock or stop and go traffic and were forced to drive through billowing smoke and along beside the raging fires. Some vehicles stalled in the hot winds or simply ran out of gas — leaving highway 63 strewn with empty cars, trucks, and buses.

The flow of evacuees has been driven northward ahead of the fire. Emergency shelters have popped up all along route 63 with many tar sands workers hunkering down in camps within the hothouse fuels extraction zone itself. A region that may also fall under threat by the fire.

The closest tar sands facilities are located within 16 miles of the city center. However, fuels for the fires in the form of trees run right up to the edge of the industrial zone and southerly winds expected to continue through late morning on Thursday may drive the flames closer. After that time, a front sweeping in from the north should shift the wind direction to northwest — pushing the fires away from these facilities. Currently, the possibility of the fires affecting these facilities is low. However, both Shell and Suncor have now suspended operations — presenting a brief silver lining to an, overall, terrible situation.

Huge Mobilization Underway, But Much of the City May Succumb to the Fire

Firefighters, who early on Tuesday acknowledged the severity of the situation, are now scrambling to deal with numerous very large blazes raging throughout the town. Social media imagery now shows images of gas stations, stores, and homes being burned or left in ruins by the fires. As of current reports, more than 1,600 structures been destroyed by the flames. By 2:28 PM Wednesday, these included 70 percent of the homes in Beacon Hill, 50 percent of the homes in Abasand, 90 percent of the homes in Waterway, and about 60 other homes and additional structures lost throughout other sections of the city. Unfortunately, given the severity of the situation, the number of burned structures is likely to grow as Wednesday progresses into Thursday.

NASA Shot of Fort McMurray Fire

Large active fires running north of a huge, 15 kilometer, burn scar. Satellite shot of Fort McMurray Fire and burn scars posted in the NASA twitter feed on Wednesday afternoon.

Considering the massive pall of smoke covering Fort McMurray and the fact that firefighters have been overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires — leaving many structures to burn — the situation has run completely out of control. National officials are scrambling to allocate more resources to attempt to abate what is a very difficult and dangerous inferno. A national emergency has been declared and an outpouring of assistance and resources is now aimed in the direction of Fort McMurray. Reports as of Wednesday afternoon indicated that there were 250 firefighters on the ground in the fire zone with more on the way. And by evening a number of defensive fire breaks appear to have been cut in an attempt to control the blaze’s expansion.

However, with numerous other fires now raging throughout Canada and with fire conditions at extreme levels over such a large area, at least one province — British Columbia — is already at the limits of its fire suppression manpower and was unable to provide aid to Fort McMurray. As a result, Alberta officials are now coordinating with national and military firefighting forces as fires continue to expand through the city and along the Athabasca River.

Conditions in Context — More Tar Sands Burning Generates More Wildfire Risk

It’s true that the people of Fort McMurray have suffered enough from this disaster and that the people of Canada and the world should do their best to help them in their hour of need. However, one cannot look at the situation truthfully without taking into account the impact of the Canada’s tar sands upon what is now a broadening climate crisis.

For years and decades now, IPCC has been warning that increasing greenhouse gas emissions and related rising global temperatures will result in increasing, expanding, and extreme wildfire hazards. The region of Northwest Canada is particularly vulnerable due to the influence of sea ice melt on the local Jet Stream pattern and due to the fact that many plant species in the region are ill-adapted to warming temperatures making them far more vulnerable to wildfires. In addition, permafrost thaw in the Arctic zone provides peat-like fuels that add to the fire risk. An issue where the ground itself burns.

Failure to view the current crisis in Fort McMurray in the context of global temperatures that have now exceeded 1 C above preindustrial averages and in the context of a failure to halt tar sands extraction is a failure to view the situation realistically. Much talk has been made of getting Fort McMurray’s tar sands industry back on track. But it’s the tar sands that have greatly contributed to the intensity of the dangerous fire that is now threatening that city’s very existence. And it’s the tar sands that will produce far-flung harmful impacts affecting so, so many other cities around the world. Will Fort McMurray respond to their hour of need by finding a better way of doing business? Or is it all just still denial and doubling down in a way that hurts just about everyone involved?

(Best hopes and prayers to everyone involved in this terrible situation. Please stay safe and stay tuned to official broadcasts for updated information on fires and evacuations.)


Fort McMurray Homes Destroyed as Wildfire Forces Mandatory Evacuation Orders

Fort McMurray Residents take to Social Media as Situation Intensifies

Jenine’s Twitter Feed

Earth Nullschool


Canadian Fire Danger Map

Fort McMurray Area Updates

It’s Apocalyptic. No Way out But North.

Here’s the Climate Context for the Fort McMurray Wildfire

Alberta Burning

Randy Vanberg

NASA Twitter Feed

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Mike Crews

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Redsky

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

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