Home Emergency Management News A Deeper Look at the Fort McMurray Wildfires

A Deeper Look at the Fort McMurray Wildfires


Fort McMurray wildfires are still burning out of control

The Alberta, Canada government released an update on the Fort McMurray wildfires yesterday at 4:30 p.m. local time. The update contained little good news.

According to the official update, fire conditions are high to extreme in northeastern Alberta and the government classified the wildfires in no uncertain terms: "out of control." The fires are currently estimated to be burning approximately 566,188 hectares in the region, which is a number that now includes 4,600 hectares in Saskatchewan, as the fires have spread. All told, 15 wildfires are currently burning.

The official update also included the latest information on response and recover crews. According to the Alberta government, there are currently 2,054 firefighters battling the wildfires along with 88 helicopters, 256 pieces of heavy equipment and 25 air tankers. Those fighting the fires are not only local crews, as emergency responders from across the globe are supporting efforts.

Right now, there are 280 firefighters from South Africa, 200 from the U.S., 85 from Ontario, 44 from Quebec, 30 from Northwest Territories, 22 from New Brunswick, eight from Parks (Canada), six from Saskatchewan, three from Newfoundland, and three from Nova Scotia.

The weather may contribute to firefighting efforts in the coming days, as temperatures are forecast to be moderate both today and tomorrow, with a possibility of thundershowers on both days.

Unusually large and fierce fires for spring

As of May 10, the Fort McMurray fires were burning a land area close to the size of the state of Rhode Island. As of this latest report (May 25), the total land area burning in the fires is now approaching the size of the state of Delaware.

According to analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier in May, several fire-friendly atmospheric and ground conditions combined to set the table for a wildfire of such massive proportion to come to life.

These conditions included drier-than-average terrain, below-average amounts of precipitation, unusually dry air, and above-average spring temperatures. These ingredients created a recipe that was ripe for burning. A glaring example of these unusual conditions occurred on May 3 and 4, when local temperatures reached near 90°F. Typically, temperatures would only push 60°F at the highest at that point of the year.

Lack of snow contributed to severity of Fort McMurray fires

A separate analysis from the NOAA took a look at snow cover in Alberta this spring. According to the report, April 2016 snow extent was the smallest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, and while Alberta snow cover in April 2016 didn't shatter any records, it was below average.

The lack of snow cover so early in spring left the Fort McMurray region unusually vulnerable to fires. Not only does snow-covered ground not burn, but snow can also serve as a shield to buffer areas of forest against impacts brought on by bouts of hot and/or dry weather. Unfortunately, according to the NOAA, the record-low snow cover seen in the Northern Hemisphere is not an isolated incident. Instead, this downward trend is linked to global warming and thus can be expected to be more of a norm in coming years.

All things considered, questions of whether the Fort McMurray wildfire is an isolated event are evaporating quickly as the region continues to burn out of control.

Matt Mills Matt Mills has been involved in various aspects of online media, both on the editorial side and on the technology side, for more than 16 years. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, and is currently involved in multiple projects focused on innovation journalism.