On May 1, 2016 a wildfire nicknamed “The Beast” sparked southwest of Fort Murray, in western Canadian province of Alberta, destroying hundreds of households and almost reaching oil sands mining facilities in its wake. This forced the authorities to issue an evacuation of more than 90000 residents of neighbouring areas. It was estimated that the initial burn area covered up to 10000 hectares but over the time increased to 505000 hectares by the end of May and continues to grow, reaching neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.
The primary and definite origin of the wildfire remains unknown and is still being investigated. Scientists from University of Alberta claim that a close proximity to the urban area and absence of powerful lightning strikes lead them to believe the combustion was most likely induced by humans. Unusually hot and dry air masses above the northern Alberta, coupled with extremely low humidity levels brought the temperature to uncommonly high temperatures, which along with gusty shifting winds sped the spread of the flames. It was also hinted that an increased number of wildfires is also caused by global warming and shortened vegetation period. Alberta authorities have used drones, which had been previously used by mining and construction companies, to determine the source of the fire. They are equipped with infrared, ultraviolet and regular optical cameras to pinpoint the hottest parts of the fire and based on wind, time and several other factors- trace it back to the source. During one flight, a drone can shoot up to 800 images which after processing will form a fire-map.
Shortly after the fire engulfed the province, the Government of Alberta declared a state of emergency and immediately requested the aid of Canadian Armed Forces. Military operation LENTUS 16-01 was commenced, which resulted in C-130 Hercules aircraft, four CH-146 Griffon and one CH-147 Chinook helicopters departing from Canadian Forces Base Trenton. In total, currently over 1800 firefighters with hand tools, 104 helicopters, 29 air tankers and almost 300 pieces of heavy equipment are being deployed to deal with the wildfires in the region.
Because Canada is exposed to the danger of fire multiple times a year federal, provincial and territorial governments had issued the development of numerous firefighting tools including computer models and systems. In order to combat fires more efficiently Canadian Wildland Fire Information System was established as a part of Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. It provides details about fire hazards from all over Canada and contains various subsystems dealing with environmental data, which in turn allows to assess the risk of a conflagration or analyse the status of existing fires. Those systems include:
- Fire Danger Map, which is a relative index of how difficult is it to start a fire in vegetation areas and estimated damage a fire may cause.
- Fire Weather Index is a numeric rating of flames’ intensity, which combines the index of spread and build-up. It is considered as a general indicator of fire danger across forested areas in Canada.
- Hotspot Map which indicates a source of fire based on a satellite pixel imagery with high infrared intensity. The data is obtained from numerous sources including imagery from Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite to form a detailed map with accurate location of possible threats.
Along with the national systems, the authorities of Alberta have established additional, dedicated Wildfire Management Science and Technology programme to address challenges associated with controlling wildfires. The programme consists of four strategic aspects of crisis management:
- Research, to develop sound methodology in order to provide reliable defensive solutions;
- Education and Training, to ensure the excellence and continuous development in fighting and managing wildfires;
- Decision and Communication Support, which develops and improves tools to provide appropriate, up-to-date information to operational services and support agencies.
- Partnership and Collaboration, which extends a network of developers, researchers and specialists to ensure effective interdisciplinary teams to face new challenges.
Fire continues to rage over around Fort McMurray area, however the temperatures finally began to drop and long awaited rain temporarily suppressed the spread. According to officials, the residents will be allowed to return to their homes no sooner than on June 1st ,as the air is severely polluted and critical infrastructure destroyed.