The Beast: Canada’s Wildfire
The early May major “wildfire” in Alberta’s northern region which spread into Fort McMurray has been nicknamed “The Beast” (see this Guardian news article). The fire grew rapidly within a few days and, due to the weather conditions which were unusually warm and dry, spread rapidly. It quickly spread over an area from 1,200 hectares to more than 220,000 hectares in a few days. It remains active and has covered over 2,000 square miles (3,218 square kilometres). In fact there are several fires, 17 or so, but the Fort McMurray one remains out of control. Several communities such as Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Fort McKay First Nation are under a mandatory evacuation order. It is not yet understood how the fire started and if it is indeed a wildfire or not.
The city of Fort McMurray took much of the brunt of the fire which led to the evacuation of thousands of residents: many homes were destroyed by the fire and approximately 88,000 residents had to evacuate at short notice. Residents had to travel for a couple of hours to escape the blaze. It was estimated that around 2,400 homes and buildings were lost to the flames. The majority of the city, fortunately, remained untouched. The impact of the fire is unusual in that some adjacent properties have been either burnt to the ground or left relatively untouched according the aerial imagery that has been put on the Alberta Government web site. Some properties have just their basements left whilst others next door seem to be intact complete with roof surviving. It is a very unequal spatial impact, even along the same road. Some houses are destroyed yet outbuildings or garages remain unaffected by flames. Many houses were in wooded suburbs that contributed to the houses burning but this is not a common factor: many local geographical and possibly meteorological factors may have had an influence on buildings that were either destroyed or survived the inferno. Some houses backing on to the same woodland remain whilst others have been totally burnt to the basement destroying people’s homes and possessions. Typical scenes can be viewed on this Fort McMurray Today Twitter photograph and this one.
The scale and ferocity of the fire makes it unusual. The fire was powerful enough to cross a one kilometre wide river. It has also generated lightning which then generated new fire starts, as an example of a positive feedback loop. It has had a global impact in terms of the smoke trail from Canada reaching as far as Spain and the UK in Europe according to NASA. The smoke and aerosols also travelled as far south as Florida in the USA. The local Alberta Health Services issued health warnings for the entire area with Health Quality Index of 10+. This scale means that there is a very high risk of triggering health issues. See this link for an overview.
NASA has provided information from its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Rapid Response Team which is known as the MODIS Rapid Response Team. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) is from two satellites: Aqua and Terra satellites. Areas that are actively burning are detected by MODIS’s thermal bands and can highlight areas of fire. This illustrates how remotely sensed data can be used to assist in times of crisis: here being able to assess remote areas where the fires may still be present. The vast scale of the fire has made it easy to detect from satellites: it has a very strong “thermal signature” and has also burnt such a large area of territory that it is easy to detect from space (512 kilometres above the earth surface).
The Canadian fires have been quite exceptional on a number of levels: their rapid growth, the vast extent and the global aerosol impacts. They come at a time of a very strong El Niño & the Southern Oscillation event and are very early in the season. There is some irony that the fires are hitting an area of oil sands extraction where production is of oil is typically quite inefficient (compared with conventional crude oil supplies) and generates much carbon dioxide perhaps having a large impact on the changing climate. The people of Fort McMurray and other places will have to undertake a major rebuild when the fire eventually dies out.