To the great relief of many people, the wildfire of Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas has grown minimally over the last few days, leaving many parts of Saskatchewan completely untouched. This means that, according to the latest figures, the area that the wildfire has touched or remains burning is 579,946 hectares, although that includes the parts of Saskatchewan that were not so lucky. The firefighting crews and those with heavy equipment intended to support the firefighting crews are making continual progress against the blaze, and over 386 km of dozer guard is now finished.
However, that does not mean that this battle is over. There are still currently 1754 firefighters and support staff still tackling the fire, along with 72 helicopters and 252 pieces of heavy machinery – with more firefighters due to come in for relief in the next few weeks from many of the surrounding areas, including Ontario, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, Quebec, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, Parks Canada, Prince Edward Island, and the US. This includes volunteers as well as those who are professional firefighters, and they will be coming for as long as is required to make the Fort McMurray area safe once more.
If you are intending to return to Fort McMurray, it is likely that you will experience a huge amount of smoke and haze, many small ground fires that are still burning, hundreds of firefighters completing their duties, aircraft flying over head repeatedly, and much heavy equipment. This is because many of the firefighting crews are in the area quelling small ground fires to ensure that they do not create more problems. For your own safety, and for those of the firefighting teams, avoid areas where they are working, and any areas that are still on fire.
The phased re-entry of residents to the Fort McMurray area is beginning, with the hope that everyone who wishes to return will be in place by June 15. This is a voluntary return, and the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre should be complete by that time also. Not everyone who used to live in the Fort McMurray area will necessarily want to return home, especially if there is not much for them to return to, and it is assumed that some will wish to relocate in the surrounding areas, close to friends and family members. The weather forecast for the next few days includes some foggy patches, with the smoke continuing to rise, and a few clouds in the sky.
Understandably, there is a complete fire ban in the whole of the Fort McMurray Forest Area. Prohibited types of fire include open fires, campfires, charcoal briquette, tiki torches, any incendiary targets, and turkey fryers. However, propane BBQs and stoves CSA approved and UL certified and infrared style heaters are permitted. This is for your own safety, the safety of those around you, and for the prevention of wildfire starting up all over again.
During the re-entry period and until further notice, the use of off-highway vehicles (OHM) is forbidden from provincial parks and public lands. However, those who are using them for agriculture, public safety, commercial reasons, or by Indigenous peoples when being used under Part II of the Constitution Act 1982 or section 12 of the Natural Resources Transfer Agreement are permitted to do so. These restrictions will be continued until further notice. All updates will come from the Wildfire Information Co-ordinator, and you should defer to their judgement at all times. This is for you own safety and security, and is done so that we can return the Fort McMurray area to how it was as quickly and as safely as possible.
The wildfire that has consumed so much of the Fort McMurray area now threatens to have consequences on an even larger scale, as the Bank of Canada has recently announced that the country’s GDP will fall into the negative zone for this quarter, due to the slowed production of oil, one of the nation’s biggest exports.
At the same time, the cost of oil has risen up to $50 a barrel – the highest it has been since October 2015 – due to the decrease in availability, as so many places that worked with oil in the Fort McMurray area were forced to be evacuated due to the fire.
This has combined with the unrest and political issues that are currently occurring in Nigeria and Libya, and when brought together with the concerns in Venezuela, the oil industry is looking at a very complicated and worrying situation – with a loss of almost 4 million barrels of oil per day.
“Fire-related destruction and the associated halt to oil production will cut about 1¼ percentage points off real GDP growth in the second quarter,” the central bank said on Wednesday, contradicting many of the analysts who had suggested that we could see a growth of around 1% in April – but the fire’s effect is going to be seen much more strongly than that.
However, the Bank of Canada believes that it will only take one quarter for the economy to recover and bounce back, although the wildfire continues to grow in Alberta and in Saskatchewan.
“The fire is now being fought on both sides of the border,” said wildfire manager Chad Morrison told reporters at a press conference. “We expect the potential for extreme wildfire conditions to occur,” he said “We expect weeks, if not months, fighting this fire in the forested areas.”
The Fort McMurray wildfire is no longer just affecting those in Canada, as NASA satellite images demonstrate that the ash cloud has now reached the shores of Spain and the UK, leading some experts to fear that the change in temperatures could increase the rate at which Greenland’s ice sheet melts.
Although there is only a slight haze that can be seen with the naked eye as far as Europe, Robert Gray who is a fire ecologist believes that it is Greenland that should be concerned. It has over 1.7 million square km of ice sheets that could be affected by this rise in temperature. Already affected by rising global temperatures, the ash from Fort McMurray could deposit as soot in the area, which could increase the warming process yet again.
“There will be a lot of soot deposited on the ice shelf from this fire. And it speeds up the warming process quite significantly. Simple white reflects heat and light away, but once you have a black body — imagine a tarmac-black asphalt on a really hot day and how much it absorbs heat,” he said.
The ash that has travelled from Fort McMurray rose over 12,000 metres into the atmosphere as it was then transported by the jet stream, and it is believed by some that it is even possible that it could circumnavigate the entire globe if it retains enough energy. Much of the ash was created around three weeks ago, when the fire burned its brightest, and though it is relatively diluted by the time it reaches Spain and the UK, the southern United States has already received the bulk of it.
“It may appear to be kind of a humid day, where you see kind of blurred landscapes around you because it’s kind of unclear. But it would not look anything like Edmonton did, or Fort Mac did a couple days ago.”
Although much of the rest of the province enjoyed a wet and cold May weekend, the Fort McMurray area did not receive much rain at all, and the northern parts did not get any, leaving the wildfire on Tuesday morning at a size of 522,895 hectares. Even worse, the municipal affairs minister has reported that in fact, there are 40 new wildfires since Monday, many of which started out as camp fires which were just abandoned.
The greater wildfire continues to spread northeast towards the oil facilities, and 2496 hectares of Saskatchewan has been destroyed, making the fight against the fire now over two sides of the border. Despite great efforts, the lack of rain is hampering progress, leading some to say that it will take months, rather than weeks, to defeat it – especially as the weather forecast is now suggesting that there are warmer and crisper days ahead.
The Fort McMurray firefighting teams are not alone, however; more than one thousand new firefighters are expected to have arrived in the area over the next fortnight, with many coming from other Canadian provinces, though some will come from the US and other parts of the world. This is due to a lack of expected rain, and officials know they need to act now before the warmer weather arrives. It is believed that commercial air services will soon be able to start at the Fort McMurray International Airport as early as June 10th, although this is dependent on the fire and how many residents volunteer to return.
The RCMP has reopened its Woof Buffalo detachment, despite being closed for a time due to air quality concerns, and there are almost 80 members of staff from other detachments that are volunteering their time in the Fort McMurray area. Much of their work is to ensure the safety and security of the properties and possessions that had to be left behind during the evacuation process. Their duty, as they see it, is to ensure that everything is still there when the families and individuals start to return back to their homes and places of work.
The 1st of June was the date set for voluntary re-entry, although no one has suggested that people will be returning to fully restored properties; there will be a lot of work to be done in order to transform the Fort McMurray area back to how it was before the wildfires came. There will be many simple services that could not be running, and there will therefore be information centres set up in many of the local neighbourhoods to help people adjust to the new living conditions. In some cases, it is believed that people will return to their homes and places of work in Fort McMurray for closure, and then choose to re-build their lives somewhere else.
The hospital is back up and running, and 90% of the area has electricity restored – with natural gas back in 99% of homes. Water sampling stations are now up and running in the hope that it will not be too much longer people that is re-established safely as well. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has posted a special re-entry booklet on its website, which includes special safety information for returning people. There could easily be traffic problems as an estimated 80,000 people try to travel back to the Fort McMurray area, and people are being warned to prepare themselves for an intense cleaning up process, even for those properties that have not received any specific fire damage. The sheer amount of smoke and ash in the area will require a lot of cleaning.
It was on May 1st of 2016 that a small wildfire that started just southwest of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada began one of the most devastating and uncontrollable fires in the country’s history, destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares, and claiming properties across two state lines, claiming for itself the nickname of ‘The Beast’.
Just two days later the wildfire had taken such a strong hold in the local area that it had already destroyed over 2400 homes and properties, and forced almost 100,000 people to evacuate from not only their houses, but their entire area. To date, the Fort McMurray wildstill burns in many areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and is set to become one of the most expensive and costly disasters in the entirety of Canadian history.
By 10:00pm on May 1st a state of emergency was declared in the Centennial Trailer Park and its surrounding neighbourhoods, and a mandatory evacuation was given to residents that were in danger of being caught in its path. However, that mandatory evacuation was lowered to a voluntary one the next day when it appeared that the fire was heading in a different direction, towards the south west instead. Just a day later, on May 3rd, that voluntary order became mandatory once again as 12 neighbourhoods became in the path of the wildfire as it increased in size and intensity – and just two hours later, at around 7pm that day, the mandatory evacuation of the whole of Fort McMurray was announced.
It is in many ways incredible that over 88,000 people were evacuated with so few casualties. Two people were killed in the movement out of the area, but what is even more astounding is that, to date, not a single person has been killed by the fire, or any consequences of the fire, despite the fact that it can be seen from miles away. It was certainly the right decision to evacuate everyone as the 4th May included the announcement that over 1600 homes had been destroyed up to that point, and around 10,000 hectares of land had been destroyed. However, further warnings had to be released to prevent people from returning to their homes, so quick and sudden had the evacuation been.
By the end of May 4th, the wildfire in Fort McMurray was so large that it was starting to create its own weather patterns distinct from the rest of the area’s weather, which proved even more dangerous than people initially thought because it started to provoke lightning strikes, increasing the likelihood of further wildfires being created.
Over the month of May and into the month of June, the wildfire has continued to grow and spread across large areas of Alberta and into Saskatchewan, damaging over 504,443 hectares including many oil refinery areas, homes, hospitals, and places of business and work. It is believed that many people will start to be able to return to their homes – or where their homes used to stand – the coming early days of June, but even this news has been given with the warning that should anything change in the nature of the wildfire, that order could be changed at any moment.
Many firefighters from different towns and cities across Canada have volunteered or been drafted in to help try to control the wildfire, and particularly to prevent it from spreading, but extra reserves have been gratefully received from areas in the United States of America, and even from places as far away as South Africa – all to quell The Beast of a wildfire that could continue for months, rather than weeks.
The people of Fort McMurray who have been forced to leave their homes due to the wildfire are receiving help from many areas, including the Canadian government who has promised to quicken the insurance claims so that they can more easily rebuild their lives. The Canada Post company has offered to forward all mail for free, and Western Union has removed all charges for money being sent to Alberta. Many other retailers, pharmacists, and other companies have contributed, and even the oil sands production companies have gone out of their way to help their employees.
When the fire was at its largest, it covered over half a million hectares – almost the size of Prince Edward Island. Thankfully the area of Fort McMurray has had rain, desperately needed to calm the wildfire. However, much of the damage has already been done; one expert from the Bank of Montreal believes that over $9 billion worth of insurance claims could be made in total. However, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. disagrees, saying that as only around 10% of homes in the Fort McMurray area have received serious damage, they are not expecting to have to cover significant damage that frequently.
There are many things that normal Canadians did to help those who have been displaced due to the fire, with many people rallying round to give even though they did not have a huge amount themselves to start with. For example, people from Ottawa sent air vehicles to help evacuations, cots for emergency shelters, and the federal government agreed to match all individual donations that were given. From Alberta cam debit cards with money already loaded to help people buy food and shelter, with adults receiving $1250 each, and dependents (children and the elderly) receiving $500. But perhaps most helpful of all were the firefighters sent from Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and many other regions – at one time, there was 2400 firefighters on the ground.
In the first week, the strong winds easily overwhelmed firefighting crews and the call for evacuation was made. Over 80,000 left their homes, fleeing north and south. Those that fled south stayed in Edmonton, either at a reception centre, hotels, with friends, or even camping. Those that fled north became trapped in the oil sands work camps, and had to be re-evacuated to the safer south.
In the second week, the fire grew in size but lessened in intensity. The weather cooled slightly, to the relief of many of the firefighters, but much of the area’s infrastructure – gas, electricity, and water – were still destroyed. The Canadian Red Cross raised $80 million, the largest for one campaign ever, and governments struggled to get funds to those who needed it most. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the area to support the rescuers and the Premier of Edmonton.
In the third week, the fire was named ‘The Beast’ as it increased in ferocity and size once more, as 8000 oil sands workers had to be evacuated. Although many planned to return to their homes, it simply was no longer safe. The poor air quality in the Fort McMurray made it difficult for firefighting teams, and although rain was forecast it never came. The fire then moved to Saskatchewan.
In the fourth week, some work camps started production once more as the authorities started to give people permission to return to their places of work. At the same time, a timetable based in June was suggested for allowing people to move back into their homes. For some people, there is still a question about whether they should bother returning at all.Reinforcements of firefighters have arrived from the US and South Africa to keep the fire at bay.