Yesterday I heard the dreadful news about the devastating fires around Fort McMurray Alberta. Not long afterwards, the evacuation notice spread to all residents of the town and its surrounds - around 80,000 people. The entire city was evacuated. That's the largest ever fire evacuation in Alberta, probably Canada and maybe even in the world. The latest I've read is that the winds have shifted and the evacuation notice has spread to communities south of Fort McMurray, including one evacuation centre, as indicated in the video in the tweet below.
To evacuate from Fort McMurray there's really only one road, Highway 63 as the map below shows. It's about 434 km to Edmonton. To shift 80,000 people plus out of harms way would have been a garguantan task. Some went to sites considered safe outside of Fort McMurray, and various evacuation centres. I don't know where the whole 80,000 people went to - that's a lot of people to accommodate.
The worst places for wildfire in the world include California, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Australia. In the high latitudes wildfire has become a much more common occurrence, but because of the low population density, doesn't get reported as much. Examples include Alaska and Siberia, which have been plagued by very extensive wildfires in recent years.
Fires in Canada are common and have been becoming more common as global warming kicks in. Last year a drought emergency was declared for Alberta. The dry conditions (humidity of 15% or less has been reported during the Fort McMurray fire), plus the long term dryness, would have meant the risk of fire was very high. In fact, the fire risk has been increasing since the beginning of the month. The map below from the Canadian Wildfire Information System is for today 5 May 2016, showing extreme fire danger over most of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The latest agricultural moisture update, dated 28 April, pointed to the exceptional dryness and unseasonal warm weather:
In the wake of the above normal temperatures which prevailed throughout the month of April, spring is early this year and appears to be fully underway. In fact, it is estimated that most of the west-half of the province experiences an April this warm, on average less than once in 50 years (see Map 1). Thus, with the early retreat of snow packs, and subsequent warmer than normal temperatures, many are looking out over a seemingly dry landscape, which corresponds to well below normal soil moisture reserves across many areas (see Map 2). This is due in part to below normal snow fall accumulations, early melt and a longer than normal snow free period, ahead of “green up”. However many areas experienced above average to average rainfall accumulations last fall (see Map 3) which should help, at least in the short term.
Superb response to the emergency
All reports indicate that the response to the emergency has been superb. The authorities must have swept into action very quickly. Everyone has been working to help everyone else, including the tar sands operators and the groups that oppose tar sands, such as the local First Nation communities opposed to tar sands developments.
It seems that any tiffs are from people most removed from the unfolding disaster, where some people don't like the fact that other people are pointing out that this is a sign of things to come with climate change.
If anyone doubts the miracle of no lives lost, so far, except in a traffic accident, see the following pictures and YouTube videos.
This first one shows the evacuation with huge flames leaping out the roadside and embers falling over the traffic.
PHOTO: A helicopter flies past a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta. https://t.co/u2Qypiywoj— The Associated Press (@AP) May 5, 2016
How to help - Red Cross Donations to the Alberta Fires Emergency Appeal
You can donate to the Red Cross fire appeal for Alberta. It's reported that every donation will be matched dollar for dollar by the Alberta Government, which has provided $2m as seed funding.
These donations can make a huge difference in the lives of people made homeless by the fires, and those whose livelihoods have been damaged or destroyed.
Spare a thought, too, for all the volunteer and paid firefighters who are risking life and limb, and giving up work and family, to fight these horrific fires. Manitoba can't help and Saskatchewan has extreme fire danger of its own to contend with, but will help all it can. British Columbia is trying to cope with 85 fires of its own. (That's one of the big problems fire-prone areas will face as the world continues to heat up, along with how to get enough volunteers or paid professionals.)
The other point worth making is that this fire needs both forest/rural firefighting specialists and urban firefighting specialists. Usually it's one or the other.
Before and after NASA images
I've put together a before and after slider with NASA images from 3 May and 4 May. It doesn't seem to work in Internet Explorer but is okay with Chrome and Firefox.