Thursday, May 5, 2016

Horrible, awful, devastating fire in Fort McMurray Alberta

Sou | 6:30 PM Go to the first of 37 comments. Add a comment
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.

Fort McMurray is a large town north of Edmonton. (I lived in Edmonton for a winter back in the early 1970s - it was a very cold, very dry, very long winter and an experience that I wouldn't have missed for the world). It has a cold climate, though it can get warm in summer time. The past couple of days it's been above 32 C in Fort McMurray, setting a new record for that early in May.

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.

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.
(Added by Sou 6 May 2016)


Greg Charles said...

As far as I know, the largest fire evacuation ever was in October, 2007, when the Witch Fire and several others ignited simultanously and the whole sprawling city of San Diego, from the mountains to the beaches, seemed to be alight. An estimated 500,000 people were evacuated, including me. Again, the fire crews did amazing work, and fatalities were few.

Sou said...

Wow. That is a massive effort, Greg, on par with major cyclones and tsunamis.

Layzej said...

Alberta is implementing a carbon tax, which makes them a leader in the fight against climate change. Thanks for posting the link to red cross.

numerobis said...

Seems like the firefighters have given up on controlling the wildfire, it's all just about moving out of the way and hoping for cooler weather.

Sou said...

If it's like the fires here, while they may not attempt to control or contain the fire (ie prevent it spreading on any front), the firefighters will be working very hard to stop it from burning as many properties as possible, and working to protect lives of people.

(The weather is looking a bit better in the next day or so, but I don't know if it will be enough to get the fire contained or controlled.)

numerobis said...

They're saving some buildings, losing many others, working their asses off and heroically managing to keep people from dying. They have the full support of the entire country at all levels. We're still losing a lot of buildings. BMO apparently expects more than a $9bn insurance payout, a record for Canada (how carefully they calculated that I don't know).

The CBC headline now is: "Fort McMurray wildfire grows 8 times larger overnight" and the story includes ""It has begun to create its own weather, even creating its own high winds yesterday, and even lightning was coming from the smoke clouds," Morrison said."

Dan Andrews said...

Some of the residents are flying to other provinces. A family friend invited an RCMP family--who were complete strangers when they first met in the evacuation--to stay with them in Ontario (they arrive either tonight or tomorrow). The news also reports that some of the Syrian refugees in Edmonton are opening their homes for people forced to leave.

Incidentally, I had a contract offer for some environmental assessment work in Fort McMurray for this summer. I decided to turn it down as it only went for three months and with travel and renting a place to live it wouldn't be worth it. That job is probably not happening now.

Sou said...

Here's a view from above c/- NASA

PG said...

A first world mass exodus is doable. Well done Alberta.
A third world mass exodus will be unspeakable.
It's started. It's in the higher and lower
latitudes and everywhere in between but we are still arguing its cause.

Sou said...

Here's 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.

PG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PG said...

I have just realised that I am latitudinally deluded. Clearly Tassie aint in the lower lats.

Millicent said...

So are the tar sands sill being worked even as a large chunk of Alberta goes up in flames? Even boiling frogs might do something if the threat to them was so self evident.

PG said...

Saudi oil production has deliberately increased to lower world oil prices. How can Alberta possibly compete. I'm surprised it's still in existence.

numerobis said...

Millicent: the tar sands were already at reduced capacity, purely for oil price reasons -- but still producing enough oil to affect world markets. The Fort McMurray area is all but shut down, workers evacuated; other areas are still going.

All the elected leaders (except the leader of the Green party, and its sole MP) are criticizing any talk of climate change.

Lionel A said...


The development of fire storms would be extremely dangerous. Check out those that were brought about by concentrated bombing on Hamburg and Dresden in WW2. Such fires do indeed construct their own weather with the rising columns of heat pulling in fresh air from the surroundings, the winds created can uproot trees and structures adding fuel to the fire. A truly terrifying prospect for those caught up in such an event.

PG said...

numerobis I presume you are talking provincial government, not federal.

citizenschallenge said...

San Diego… Latitude 32.7157° N
Fort McMurray… Latitude 56.7264° N.

Why does the term Mission Creep come to mind?

numerobis said...

I was talking about federal. Trudeau and Mulcair say we shouldn't talk about climate change because there's a crisis right now, and that May was out of line to bring it up.

PG said...


Rattus Norvegicus said...

Yeah, it is likely that this one won't be out until the snow flies in October.

Lionel A said...

There is a similar slider two thirds down the page of this article linked below which may be more reliable in IE (which I don't run so have not tested):


Nigel Franks said...

Why is it that the Saudi's get blamed for not cutting their oil production, when it was the massive increase in the US oil production that created the glut? Compare 2008 to today here: http://money.cnn.com/interactive/news/economy/worlds-biggest-oil-producers/

numerobis said...

The news this morning is that the fire is likely to continue to burn all summer long. And of course other fires are burning all over the West.

The tar sand mines are safe, because they cut all the trees down around them. Isn't that great.

numerobis said...

About 2400 buildings destroyed, roughly 10% of the city. Major infrastructure is generally OK, but it'll be a couple weeks before the blockades can be opened and people can start heading back. Even then, the ashes are toxic. Also, buildings (mostly houses) near the edge of the fire likely have water damage: they were saved by firefighters dumping water at them.

Apparently it's sheer luck that the firefighters were able to save downtown: they were stretched to the limit, and if the fire had zigged when it zagged, they couldn't have responded.

The fire is only growing slowly now, and the parts near Fort Mac are likely to be brought under control in the next few days.


numerobis said...

One story I read mentioned that parts of the fire near Saskatchewan are expected not to be too much trouble because Saskatchewan had huge fires just last year.

It makes me wonder whether the huge fires we're seeing are a transition between the old boreal forest and a new scrubland -- or desert -- that burns more frequently but less powerfully.

jgnfld said...

Depends. Black and white spruce, aspen, etc that grow across much of northern Canada--most definitely including Ft. Mac--turn over ''naturally'' about once per century. Probably could stand a somewhat faster rate OK. I'm no forester to know for sure, but I think pine is adapted to a longer period.

Russell Seitz said...

Since the fire season has barely begun, the months to follow will determine whether this Canadian burn will evolve into a holocaust rivaling the Siberian fires of 1915.

Thus far only a few thousand square miles of Albert have been consumed by flames; estimates of the wilderness area burned in 1915 range from 140 thousand to upwards of a million square miles :

Nature 323, 116 – 117 (11 September 1986);


numerobis said...

From the figures I can grab quickly, it looks closer to 2% of the local forest burning annually these days, and growing, so it's quite a lot faster than 100 years. But my estimate of 2% might be wrong (the fire area isn't too hard to find, but I don't know enough to know what the right denominator is).

Kevin O'Neill said...

And Georgy Golitsyn attributed global cooling to the 1915 Siberian fires.

numerobis said...

Better data:
2.4 million ha annually averaged over the past 10 years.

This view: http://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/report/graphs#gr2
indicates that Alberta isn't where the forest is burning this year, it's BC. Alberta is just where a city burned.

Millicent said...

Its just a typical start of the annual Canadian city burning season after all.

numerobis said...

If the Siberian fires were about 100 million hectares (as I'm seeing estimated), that means Canada needs to burn about 12.5 times as much as the record that Canada has ever burned. Seems unlikely.

But Siberia could pitch in; probably will, given the temperature anomalies that affected Alberta are also affecting central Siberia.

TheMostCasualObserver said...

From The Siberian Times 11 May 2016:

Wildfires rage in Siberia and Russian Far East

Cam said...

numerobis, this data is out of date. According to the Alberta government, the Fort Mac fire is now over 229,000 ha. http://wildfire.alberta.ca/wildfire-status/wildfire-status-map.aspx

numerobis said...

Oops, thanks Cam. I misread the Y axis. Clearly CWFIS is ignoring a lot of burning -- despite claiming to be up to date. I'm assuming the annual data is good even if day by day the data doesn't get aggregated very well.

numerobis said...

Interesting papers about forest succession:
- lists the species present in the boreal forest and their characteristics.

- discusses effect of climate change on the forest; press reports say the forest could turn to savannah (I bet I read the press reports, the idea stuck, and upthread I rediscovered the thought but imagined I'd invented it)