Fort McMurray wildfire burning so hot only weather can stop it

The raging wildfire that forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alta., and engulfed parts of the town is the kind of blaze that firefighters dread but could become more common, according to experts. 

Alternatively described by officials as "catastrophic," a "multi-headed monster" and a "dirty, nasty" fire, the blaze is at least 10,000 hectares in area and has destroyed more than 1,600 structures. It could threaten the entire town, they said. 

More than 150 firefighters are battling the fire — which became so intense Tuesday that the shear heat limited air operations over the affected areas — on multiple fronts. Hundreds more from other provinces are expected to arrive in the coming days. 

Temperatures are expected to remain high, with a glimmer of hope on the horizon as a cold front approaches. It could, however, bring lightning with it, possibly starting more fires. It is a nearly impossible situation.

The blaze is an extreme example of the power of mother nature, but offers some interesting lessons about the science of wildfires more generally. 

'A perfect storm' of fire

The conditions that preceded the start of this fire were quintessential wildfire conditions: a seemingly endless supply of dry fuel on the forest floor and in the canopy, and intense heat. All that was needed was a spark, and whether it was caused by human error or lightning (an investigation is still underway), once the spark was there, the fire became a beast. 

"You hate to use the ​cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm," says Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service and adjunct professor in the faculty of forestry at UBC in Vancouver. 

"There was a mild winter and not a lot of meltwater from the mountain snow pack. Now, a stale air mass has been sitting over Alberta, and it lead to very low humidity. Then there was an early, hot spring, and everything got very dry. Then on top of that, it got windy."

The fire, burning between 800 C and 1,000 C, was first spotted when it was about 500 hectares in area (with each hectare about the size of a rugby pitch). It became what's called a crown fire, which occurs when the tops of conifers, which tend to burn more easily then deciduous trees, become engulfed and the flames spread through the canopy. 

"That's when you start to see the 100-metre-high flames," said Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

The fire was likely moving at a speed of up to five kilometres per hour and quickly became very difficult to manage. 

'Like spitting on a campfire'

Not just the Fort McMurray fire currently blazing, but many fires in the Boreal forest are extremely unpredictable. The fire front, the area where it's burning most intensely, is so hot that crews can't attack it from the front.

Sometimes the fire front can be hundreds of metres long, according to Flannigan, so crews have to work at its flanks. Aerial attacks become less effective because they aren't hitting the core of the blaze.

For example on Tuesday, firefighters were unable to fly over the fire front of the Fort McMurray blaze because it was too hot and to smoky, according to Alberta emergency officials. 

"This really shows that once a fire like this is up and running, the only things that are going to stop it is if the weather changes or if it runs of out fuel to burn up," says Flannigan. "With a fire like this, it's burning so hot that air drops are like spitting on a campfire. Water and retardant might slow it down, but probably not much."

Danger of spot fires

The blaze that has destroyed parts of Fort McMurray managed to cross two rivers and spawned so-called hot spots all around the affected area, which officials said has put a terrible strain on crews.

The fire is burning so intensely at its front that burning sticks, vegetation and embers are belched out of the main blaze and carried by the wind, starting brand new fires. If the wind changes direction, it can be disastrous. 

Fort McMurray wildfire progress card 1

(Sources: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Press )

Fort McMurray wildfire progress card 2

(Sources: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Press )

Fort McMurray wildfire progress card 3

(Sources: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Press )

 Fort McMurray wildfire progress card 4

(Sources: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Press )

During the massive 2011 fire in Slave Lake, Alta., there were examples of spot fires starting in populated areas more than two kilometres from the fire's front. 

Another complicating factor is that the fire started close to and moved into Fort McMurray, forcing the evacuation of about 88,000 people. The "wildland-urban interface," as Flannigan called it, is fraught with danger.

"Wildland firefighters are trained to fight wildfire, and municipal firefighters are trained to fight structural fires. Now, you have both types, creating a very dangerous hybrid fire, and it's entering an area with propane tanks, gas stations and other potentially explosive things."

'The new normal' for wildfires

According to Natural Resources Canada, the mean number of wildfires each year in Canada for the last 25 years was about 8,300. An average of about 2.3 million hectares burns each year, but recent years have seen more destructive fires in terms of area covered.

In 2014, for example, more than 5,100 forest fires burned over 4.5 million hectares. Last year, nearly four million hectares had been scorched by around 6,700 fires by early September, and fire season continues from late April to late September, depending on the region. 

Beacon Hill Truck

The majority of homes and some vehicles were destroyed in the hard-hit neighbourhood of Beacon Hill. (Sylvain Bascaron/Radio-Canada)

"Climate change models and research all point to the idea that fire season is going to be longer in the coming years, and the fires will be more severe," says David Andison, adjunct professor with the faculty of forestry at UBC.

"It will really just be the new normal."

Many agencies have started taking an approach that focuses only on wildfires that could threaten urban centres or important infrastructure. Only three per cent of wildfires in the boreal forest grow to be more than 200 hectares in size, but that three per cent accounts for 97 per cent of the area burned each year, according to Natural Resources Canada.

It's not just a resources problem but rather a new approach to fire management. Wildfires are a key part of the ecological cycle and provide an opportunity for new growth and the evolution of ecosystems. Instead of trying to suppress every fire, an assessment is made, and if it can burn without any damage to populated areas, it will be left alone. 

"As tragic as this is in terms of property damage and costs and stress, fire is still a natural process in the forest and the outcome of this will be a young, vibrant forest ecosystem," says Andison. 

RAW: Fort McMurray destruction1:20

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