WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2019
Fort McMurray Wildfire, Alberta
5/12/2016 5:20:00 PM
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Update 15/16/2016 6:00:00 PM  
First Posting 5/12/2016 5:20:00 PM 
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Posting Date: 5/12/2016 5:20:00 PM

Firefighters are currently struggling to control a massive wildfire that has destroyed more than 1,600 structures in Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, and is spreading into forest around the community. The fire began in a mobile home park and spread rapidly, thanks to unseasonably high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds. No injuries or fatalities have been reported as a direct result of the fire, and a state of emergency has been declared. The fire is still not contained— and threatens the remainder of Fort McMurray and the forest around it.

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Highway 63 congested with evacuees escaping the fires in and around Fort McMurray. (Source: DarrenRD)

Fort McMurray, the largest community in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, is located 435 kilometers (270 miles) northeast of Edmonton at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers. It is an isolated community surrounded by boreal forest in the middle of the Athabasca oil sands responsible for it becoming a single industry boomtown at the center of one of Canada's oil production hubs. Elevated neighborhoods with areas of woodland place much of the community in a Wildland Urban Interface and at high risk from wildfire.

By late day on May 3 more than 80,000 people in and around Fort McMurray had been placed under a mandatory evacuation order. Traffic blocked Highway 63, the only route connecting Fort McMurray to the outside world, and hindered emergency services; a vehicle crash on the evacuation route led to fatalities. As the fire temporarily closed the highway, thousands of evacuees turned back and headed to the north of Fort McMurray where there are few major settlements and no support services to receive them. The local airport and hospital are both closed.

The blaze first moved north and east across Fort McMurray, but on May 4 strong winds turned the fire south, putting three small communities at risk. Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, and Fort McMurray First Nation communities about 50km (30 miles) south of the city were accordingly given mandatory evacuation orders. 

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An estimate of the fire perimeter on May 5 generated by the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (Source: Natural Resources Canada)

Current Conditions and Wildfire Risk

With very few exceptions, catastrophic wildfires occur when three conditions are met simultaneously: dry heat maximizes the volatility of vegetation; extreme winds, which can drive the propagation of a fire through that vegetation, occur; and a fire ignites close to a moderately or heavily populated area.  All three conditions obtained in the vicinity of Fort McMurray and, with an estimated 1,600-plus homes destroyed, the wildfire that is now happening there is certainly catastrophic.

Extreme winds always hinder wildfire firefighting.  The already inherent difficulties that extreme winds cause are greatly aggravated when the direction of those winds changes frequently and erratically.  Simplifying somewhat, when the wind direction is predictable and constant, firefighters can focus their efforts downwind, where the most rapid expansion of the fire is likely to occur; when the wind changes unpredictably, those suppression efforts must encircle the fire entirely, stretching resources significantly. The Fort McMurray wildfire has been very much aggravated by such strong and erratic winds.

Fort McMurray sits at a lower elevation than most other parts of Alberta and can be a “hot spot.” Temperatures in the area soared to over 90°F earlier this week, but are now down considerably and expected to stay low.  Unfortunately, very little precipitation, which would be a great boon for firefighters, is in the forecast.  However, winds are expected to diminish, and that should allow firefighters to finally contain and control this calamity.

Reported Impacts and Insurance Implications

With the area closed and the fire still far from under control, it is too soon to have an accurate picture of the destruction, but it is clear that there has been a massive loss of property. A hotel, a gas station and a recently built school have been destroyed. In the latest official estimates 70% of the houses in the Beacon Hill neighborhood have been lost, in Abasand 50% have been destroyed, Waterways has lost 90%, and Wood Buffalo has lost 30 homes. Because of the oil industry, housing in the area is more expensive than its remoteness would suggest; in 2006 Fort McMurray had the highest real estate prices in Alberta.

The local economy relies on natural gas and oil pipelines, forestry, and tourism, all of which will undoubtedly be impacted by this event. The major oil sands facilities in the area are not currently threatened by the fire, but several of the oil companies active in the area shut down pipelines so that they could evacuate non-essential personnel. As a result, production has been reduced by about 500,000 barrels per day according to the Austrian consultancy JBC Energy.

Losses arising from this fire will likely far exceed those arising from the Slave Lake wildfire in 2011 that destroyed 522 homes and structures.

Fort McMurray Wildfire, Alberta
Natural Resources Canada
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