Official report shows Fort McMurray Fire created lightning-started fires 26 miles away

Officially named the Horse River Fire, it burned 589,552 hectares (1.4 million acres) in 2016, destroyed 2,400 structures, and forced 80,000 to evacuate.

Above: These two fires started at about the same time on May 1, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Seen just after they started, on the left is the MMD-004 fire inside the city limits of Fort McMurray. The Horse River Fire, often referred to as the Fort McMurray Fire, is on the right. Alberta Forestry photo.

(Originally published at 4:04 p.m MST November 2,1 2017)

As the wildfire season slows in the western United States and Canada we have had a chance to look back on some of the more significant blazes. One of the largest in recent years, if not THE largest, was in 2016 in Alberta, Canada, the 589,552-hectare (1.4 million-acre) Horse River Fire that generally became known as the Fort McMurray Fire. It burst into the headlines when it burned into Fort McMurray destroying 2,400 structures and forcing 80,000 residents to evacuate for about a month.

No one was killed directly by the fire, but two young people died during the evacuation when their SUV collided head-on with a logging truck. One of them was a firefighter’s daughter, 15-year old Emily Ryan, one of three triplets. The other was Aaron Hodgson, her stepmother’s nephew.

Firefighters talk about “extreme fire behavior”, but this fire took it to a different level. For example, according to the report released in June, on May 4 high spread rates and downwind spotting drove the fire 40-45 kilometres (26-28 miles) to the southeast by the next morning. Convection column heights on the afternoon of May 4 reached 12.5 kilometres (41,000 feet or 7.8 miles) and lightning from the pyrocumulonimbus cloud atop the column started a number of new wildfires 40 kilometres (26 miles) ahead of the main wildfire front.

Yes, lightning from the smoke column and clouds created by it started multiple new fires 26 miles downwind.

As climate change extends the length of wildfire seasons, Alberta is no exception. Since 1994 50 percent of the wildfire acres (or hectares) burned in the province have occurred in May. And right on schedule, two fires started at about the same time on May 1, 2016, one within the city limits of Fort McMurray and another west of the city.

They were both detected by a “loaded patrol”, which is a helicopter with firefighters whose mission was to find new fires soon after they started and attack them quickly. The first air tanker group, two air tankers with a bird dog (lead plane), was on scene within 30 minutes. It would have been quicker but the nearest air tanker base, at Fort McMurray, was not staffed with tankers that day.

Below is an excerpt from the report where it discusses decisions made in the first few hours after the fire was detected by the firefighters patrolling in the helicopter.


“Complicating the situation was another wildfire that was reported almost simultaneously with the Horse River wildfire. This wildfire (known as wildfire MMD-004) was located immediately inside the boundary of Fort McMurray, and was in similar forest and weather conditions as the Horse River wildfire. Both wildfires received ground wildland firefighting crews. When air tankers arrived, AF [Alberta Forestry] officials were forced to choose between the Horse River wildfire and MMD-004 for initial air attack. [The photo above shows] both the Horse River wildfire and wildfire MMD-004 on May 1, at 18:35h.

“At the time, wildfire MMD-004 was in closer proximity to structures in the community than the Horse River wildfire and thus posed the greater immediate risk. It was also evident to the first air attack officer that applying air attack on wildfire MMD-004 was more likely to yield a successful result (a decision balancing risk and probability of success). With the exhibited fire behaviour and the time that had passed for the wildfire to gain some momentum, the Horse River wildfire was likely to outpace the actions of the dispatched air tanker groups. Crews on the ground could begin to fight the Horse River wildfire near the origin, but neither ground or air attack would be successful directly on the head of the wildfire. In the end, this judgement proved correct, and wildfire MMD-004 was successfully suppressed without damage to the surrounding values. The consequence was a further delay in the use of air attack to slow or redirect the Horse River wildfire.

“Within the first hour of commencing suppression activities on the Horse River wildfire, it became clear that initial attack efforts would not be successful in containing the wildfire. This awareness required another transition in the thinking of AF and RMWB [Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo]. Operational personnel would continue to attack the wildfire, but the plan needed to shift to the requirement for expanded operations.”

Horse River Fire resources assigned
A graphic from the report showing the growth of the Horse River Fire and the resources assigned.

Alberta firefighter killed in water tender crash

James Hargrave
James Hargrave. Photo from the office of Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier.

A volunteer firefighter from southeast Alberta was killed in a vehicle accident Tuesday night October 17.

James Hargrave, a 34-year old firefighter with Cypress County Fire Services was working on a wildfire that started in Alberta and spread into Saskatchewan where it was moving toward the towns of Leader and Burstall.

Mr. Hargrave was driving a water tender that collided with a pickup. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said he died at the scene. The driver of the pickup had minor injuries.

“James was very community-minded and joined the fire services to help and protect residents far and near. He was a great father and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends, neighbours and fellow first responders,” Cypress County said in a news release. “He was a great father and will be dearly missed by his wife, children, extended family, friends neighbours and fellow first responders.”

Our sincere condolences go out to Mr. Hargrave’s family, coworkers, and friends.

map fires alberta
Map showing fires detected in southeast Alberta by a satellite at 2:55 p.m. MDT October 17, 2017.

A magic trick, or a peat fire?

This almost looks like a magic trick, but it shows what can happen with very deep-seated fires, such as peat. Smouldering underground with limited oxygen, the very hot material and gasses can transition into flaming combustion once introduced to an atmosphere with a higher concentration of oxygen.

Mesmerizing.

“Let’s be careful out there”.

Elephant Hill Fire in British Columbia grows to 194,000 acres

The fire has been burning near Cache Creek, BC since July 6, 2017.

Above: Satellite photo showing the location wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta, July 31, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by the satellite.

(Originally published at 7:32 p.m. MDT July 31, 2017)

Currently there are many wildfires burning in British Columbia and Alberta. One of them is a megafire just east of Clinton, north and south of Cache Creek, and about 50 miles northwest of Kamloops. I’m not sure if it’s the Mother of All Fires, for this year anyway, but so far it has covered 78,548 hectares (194,096 acres). The BC Wildfire Service says that number is probably low, since the visibility has prevented them from conducting mapping flights for a day or two.

(More recent information about the Elephant Hill Fire and other fires in British Columbia was posted August 2, 2017.)

The recent warmer and drier weather has contributed to increased growth in recent days. On Sunday most of the spread was on the north and west sides.  The objective on the west flank is to remove excess fuel ahead of the fire, keep it south of the Bonaparte River, and slow the aggressive fire behavior. Night shift crews are working from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to reinforce firelines.

Structure protection personnel, engines, and equipment are assigned 24 hours a day. They are working across the fire to conduct property assessments, establish sprinkler systems on structures, and protect values where needed.

Elephant Hill Fire map
Satellite photo showing smoke on the Elephant Hill Fire northwest of Kamloops, July 31, 2017. The red dots represent heat detected by the satellite.

The community of Clinton and areas to the northeast including Green Lake have been evacuated.

Resources assigned to the fire include 20 helicopters and 69 pieces of heavy equipment for a total of 359 firefighters.

The map below was current July 28, 2017.

Elephant fire map

Researchers study how the Fort McMurray fire ignited homes

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-5-00-06-pmA preliminary report report released by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction looked at how the 1,500,000-acre Fort McMurray Fire ignited some of the 2,400 structures in the Alberta city in May of this year.

Below are excerpts from the document.

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After evaluating the fire environment and clearances between homes and the forest edge, the investigator discounted direct contact from flames or radiant heat of the forest fire as being significant sources of home ignition at Fort McMurray. Instead, it was concluded that wind-driven embers were the most probable cause for the majority of early home ignitions in the zone where the fire made its transition from forest into urban neighbourhoods. Once established, the fire would have spread from structure to structure as an urban conflagration, accounting for the majority of home losses.

home ignition zone
NFPA

In all neighbourhoods studied, homes whose owners had adopted FireSmart guidelines survived much more frequently than homes where they had not, despite the extraordinarily harsh conditions.

Recommended FireSmart guidelines work. They are effective in reducing the probability of home ignition and wildfire losses. Home survival does not appear to be random or a matter of luck.

Home survival depends on conditions in the home ignition zone, for which owners are responsible.

While low total hazard rating is important, a single critical weakness can lead to home loss.

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Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Fort McMurrary Fire”.

South African firefighters reportedly asked to leave Canada

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and Alberta’s Premier, Rachel Notley are both intervening in an attempt to resolve the controversy.

A South African news agency, News24, is reporting that the 300 firefighters sent from their country to assist with the wildfires in Alberta have been asked by Canada to go home. The agency also reports that the firefighters are saying they will not leave until they receive the money they have been demanding.

Below is an excerpt from an article at News24:

Jenni Evans, News2

Cape Town – Canada has asked South Africa’s singing firefighters to go home after an internal pay dispute could not be resolved, Working on Fire said on Saturday.

”The Canadian government has asked us to get them out of Canada as soon as possible,” said Johan Heine, chairperson of the board of Working on Fire.

But Heine said the team has indicated that they will not leave until they receive confirmation that their pay demands will be met.

”They are demanding their money before they leave, and [that they] get confirmation that they get more money.”

”We all feel very terrible about it,” said Heine, who has been a firefighter for 30 years.

A Working on Fire management team arrived in Edmonton, Canada on Saturday morning and would travel with a South African embassy official to Alberta where they are based, to negotiate and pick a date for their return.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported online that Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley promised to intervene.

CBS quoted Notley as saying that it was not acceptable to her and her government that they would have people working for wages in that do not align with their labour laws.

She said every firefighter from South Africa or anywhere else would be compensated “in accordance with our laws in this province.”

The Peninsula, a Qatar newspaper, has a similar report.