Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The climate vultures are gathering – already attempts are being made to link the out of control Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada with “climate change”. But there is something about this disaster which caught my eye – a comment which may hint to a very different reason, why the Fort McMurray wildfire is so out of control.
‘We are in for a rough day’: Fort McMurray wildfire expected to flare up Tuesday afternoon
EDMONTON — The wildfire burning just outside Fort McMurray more than doubled in size Monday evening, and fire crews warned Tuesday’s weather conditions will likely be the greatest challenge yet.
Thick, ominous plumes of smoke filled the sky Monday night. But on Tuesday morning the sky was fairly clear. Officials said that didn’t mean the fire had died down, and explained how an inversion was holding the smoke close to the ground. That was expected to lift in the early afternoon, which is when smoke would begin appearing in the sky again.
“The fire conditions are extreme,” Darby Allen, regional fire chief for the Wood Buffalo municipality, said during an 11 a.m. update Tuesday, talking about how the fire will “wake up.”
“The boreal forest is a fire-dependant ecosystem. The spruce trees, pine trees, they like to burn,” Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager in Fort McMurray, explained.
“They have to burn to regenerate themselves, and those species have adapted themselves to fire. Their cones have adapted so they open up after the fire has left, and the trees have adapted in that once they’re old and need to be replaced, they’re available to fire so they burn.”
Schmitte said the southwest corner of the fire was most active and saw the most growth Monday. It was burning in a southwest direction, away from Fort McMurray.
Officials said that as long as it remains safe to do so, firefighters would be working with bulldozers through the night to construct a fire break between the tip of the fire and Highway 63.
Australians like myself also sometimes face serious risk from wildfires, our forests are also “fire-dependent ecosystems”. It is normal to attempt to cut new emergency firebreaks during a severe fire, to try to prevent further spread. But an emergency firebreak is no substitute for properly maintained firebreaks which were created before the wildfire strikes.
Digging a little deeper;
Alberta’s aging forests increase risk of ‘catastrophic fires’: 2012 report
“Wildfire suppression has significantly reduced the area burned in Alberta’s boreal forest. However, due to reduced wildfire activity, forests of Alberta are aging, which ultimately changes ecosystems and is beginning to increase the risk of large and potentially costly catastrophic wildfires.”
To deal with this threat, the committee proposed expanding fire weather advisories to include potential wildfire behaviour, developing quick-response, firefighting specialists, and doing more work on fire prevention through the province’s FireSmart committee.
The goal was to contain all wildfires by 10 a.m. on the day after it had first been assessed, and before the fire had consumed more than four hectares of forest. This standard is met for the vast majority of Alberta wildfires, but it was not met this week in Fort McMurray.
The panel’s report came in response to Alberta’s unprecedented May 2011 fire season, which culminated in the deadly and costly Slave Lake fire that killed one helicopter pilot and took out 510 homes and buildings costing $700 million. The Alberta government’s Sustainable Resource Development department set up a panel to figure out how to deal with this kind of threat.
The panel pushed for widespread fire bans, forest area closures, and elevated fines during extreme weather.
They wanted to deal with parts of the forest that presented risk because of their location close to town. “Priority should be given to thinning or conversion of coniferous stands, particularly black spruce, which threaten community developments (as identified through strategic analysis of wildfire threat potential).”
They pushed for more staff, and year-round staff. “Advance start times for resources, including crews, equipment and aircraft contracts, to be fully ready for potential early fire seasons. Ensure staff vacancies are filled as soon as possible. Expand work terms to year round for a portion of firefighting crews to support retention and provide capacity for FireSmart initiatives.”
Understaffed, under-resourced forestry workers struggling to contain a growing risk of wildfire, a risk which has been exacerbated by excessive fire suppression causing a buildup of flammables, is a recipe for disaster.
Did Alberta authorities act, and act effectively, on the recommendations of committee? I don’t know the answer to that question. It is possible weather conditions are so severe, even completely reasonable forest safety measures have been overwhelmed by the ferocity of the fire. But if my property and life was directly affected by the current ongoing conflagration, my first question to Alberta authorities would not be “why didn’t you build more wind turbines?”.