It’s been several months now since the hype surrounding the fire at Fort McMurray, and the fire itself, has died down. The fire, now known to be the costliest disaster in Canadian history1, hit worldwide news channels, spreading knowledge of this disaster across the globe.
But what actually happened and why?
The wildfire actually started southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, sweeping through the community of Fort McMurray on the 3rd of May. It was reported that the previous 12 months had been dry Alberta, with a record-setting drought over the summer period following up a particularly dry winter. This first day of May saw near-record temperatures and excessively dry forests, creating the perfect conditions to support the fire.
After initial fire warnings, more than 80,000 people were forced to evacuate, generating the largest wildfire evacuation in Albertan history2 and destroying approximately 2,400 homes3. This fire, having been spotted when it was approximately two hectares wide, was now moving at 30-40 miles per minute and creating its own weather patterns. It was about this point that the fire was christened “The beast”. The fire continued to spread across Northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, damaging infrastructure and forested areas along the way.
How did the fire start?
The precise answer to this is unknown. Whilst it is easy to cross off reasons that the fire started, such as a lightning strike, understanding the real cause is much harder. Investigations are still underway to determine the exact cause but the closest most reports come to agree on is that it was ‘human caused’. The scope of this includes an accidental start, with an innocent camp fire quickly gaining force and becoming a problem, as well as a deliberate start with malicious intent. As of yet, the true reason for the fire starting is widely unknown.
Initial estimates from the 4th of May suggest the around 1,600 structures in Fort McMurray alone were destroyed. Fire fighters worked through May 6th and 7th to hold the line and protect downtown and the remaining homes in Fort McMurray. Damage occurred to the town’s power grid4 and on the 9th of May this figure was revised to 2,400 structures damaged5. 85-90% of the community was reported unscathed by the fire. Mid-May saw two explosions occurring in the Thickwood and Dickensfield neighbourhood, damaging an additional ten buildings and completely destroying three.
In addition to this, there were further implications for the local infrastructure as the Oil Sands Production facilities in the North of Fort McMurray were halted6. Shell Canada shut down output at the Albian Sands mining operation, situated approximately 70km north of Fort McMurray6.
The fire didn’t just cut across a mass amount of infrastructure and humans weren’t the only ones put at threat by the blaze. There are approximately 587 species of wildlife living in Alberta, excluding most of the plant life, ranging from caribou to cougars to black widow spiders. All of these, just like the people living nearby and who were evacuated, can suffer from smoke inhalation, burns or exhaustion7. Alberta’s warm summer not only helped spread the fire quicker, but the previous warm winter meant that migrating species returned to the Fort McMurray area earlier than the usual time of late June. Survival is species specific. With birds making up 411 of Alberta’s species, many, such as the raptor family, had the chance to spot and flee the fire before encountering much damage. Other, smaller and lower flying birds, were more susceptible to smoke inhalation and exhaustion, the same as most of the land-bound creatures. The Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation, a rehabilitation centre for injured or orphaned wildlife in Calgary, has admitted 86% more animals in the past month compared to this time last year7. Fortunately, the fire doesn’t necessarily mean the complete destruction of habitat. Many forests naturally burn, the process being a part of their successive regrowth. This often occurs every 10 to 100 years and the event invites new growth of grass and other, more ground level shrubs7.
So for now?
Preliminary insurance pay-outs are estimated to add up to as much as $9 billion CAD if the entire community is in need of being rebuilt8. As of July 7th, 2016, it is approximated that the cumulative cost of damage is $3.58 billion CAD9. Infrastructure has to be rebuilt and investigations on going to find out the true cause of the fire.
Many people are now without their homes and the immediate future, let alone in the long run, looks uncertain. Repairs may take up to a decade to resolve and regrowth of the forest to the state it was in is unsure. In addition to this, the fate of the wildlife that survived the epic blaze could depend on the level of human tolerance. If wildlife escaping the disaster get pushed into Tar island in the north or Anzac in the east, they could become unwelcome neighbours to the people that reside there. The future of both the people and the wildlife depend on continued cooperation and patience of everyone involved.
- “Fort McMurray fire could cost insurers $9B, BMO predicts”. CBC News. May 5, 2016. Archived from the original on May 10, 2016. Retrieved May 5, 2016
- Ramsay, Caley; Shum, David (May 9, 2016). “‘Ocean of fire’ destroys 2,400 structures but 85% of Fort McMurray still stands”. Global News. Retrieved May 10, 2016.
- Parsons, Paige (May 3, 2016). “Thousands flee from Fort McMurray wildfire in the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history”. Edmonton Journal. Postmedia Network. Archived from the original on May 10, 2016. Retrieved May 3, 2016
- Growing Fort McMurray wildfire could double in size and reach Saskatchewan border”. National Post. May 7, 2016. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
- McConnell, Rick (May 9, 2016). “Fort McMurray is ‘still alive,’ fire chief says – but safety concerns linger”. CBC News. Retrieved May 10, 2016.
- Wildfire forces heart of Canada’s oilsands to scale back production”. Montreal Gazette. May 3, 2016. Retrieved May 5, 2016
- Campbell, Meagan (May 9, 2016). What will the Fort McMurray fires mean for wildlife? Fort McMurray FAQ, Maclean’s.
- Fort McMurray fire could cost insurers $9B, BMO predicts”. CBC News. May 5, 2016. Archived from the original on May 10, 2016. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
- Parsons, Paige (May 19, 2016). “Fort McMurray fire grows to 505,000 hectares as it crosses into Saskatchewan”. Edmomton Journal. Retrieved May 19, 2016.