The 101 About the Fire in Fort McMurray

Gabrielle Klemt - 1B Geological
Posted on: May 19, 2016

People flee taking nothing but the clothes on their backs, leaving behind the place they once called home, the sky filled with smoke and ash. This is not a scene you expect to hear about one of Canada’s most notoriously well-off cities; looking at the images it seems like something from an apocalypse movie. The sky is literally a mass of smoke and flames. Cars line up by the hundreds to leave while the sides of the roads burn.

At this point, it’s likely that you’ve heard about Fort McMurray. Just three weeks ago, most people equated Fort Mac to a hub in the oil industry. Flash forward to now and it’s estimated about 19,280 houses have been damaged. Whole neighbourhoods are now literally smoking foundations. The size of the blaze, which as of May 17 was 355,000 hectares, can be roughly equated to 60 percent of the size of P.E.I.

The fire has consumed huge sections of Fort McMurray and surrounding suburbs, displacing some 90,000 people. Now, the blaze has moved on to an oilsands camp north of the city. All workers were evacuated safely though, and no one was injured. The death toll of this fire remains at two indirect deaths; tragically, the daughter of a deputy police chief and her cousin were killed when their vehicle collided with a tractor trailer as they were fleeing the fire.

The unpredictable nature of forest fires makes them incredibly difficult to fight. It was thought initially that the fire would never reach the town of Fort Mac and that residents wouldn’t have to evacuate at all. Unfortunately, all the elements were in place to create a truly unruly fire which managed to cross both the Athabasca and Hangingstone rivers, spreading north and through the city.

Meteorology is an incredibly important factor to any fire, and the conditions at the time the fire started were a recipe for disaster. The morning of the fire there was an inversion, a condition where warmer air is trapped above cooler air, trapping down the smoke. Later the inversion reversed, fanning the smoke and flames. The humidity also dropped while the temperature rose in a phenomenon called the Crossover, ideal for a fire. All this added to the winds which blew the flames north towards the city and on.

Alberta had been experiencing a dry period and the underbrush in the forests is very susceptible to fire. Not to mention the actual types of nearby trees (spruce and aspens) are contributing factors; the needles of the pines and spruce blowing easily in the wind, carrying the fire far afield. Even as planes and helicopters try to douse slow-burning forest fires from the air, the wind carries embers further away, starting fires elsewhere. Many of the neighbourhood fires started when roofs were ignited by airborne fire.

Three weeks in, the fire is still burning and fire-fighting efforts are hindered by poor air quality, hot temperatures, and a lack of rainfall in the area. Now it is also a matter of housing the displaced people and starting to look towards a future of rebuilding and the associated costs. Insurance losses alone are estimated to be around $9 billion.

Aid has been pouring in from around the world and the province has been working to provide relief for displaced people. The nation is now just hoping that no one else is hurt and that it all ends soon.