Wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta
Between 1995 and 2005, 250 communities and 700,000 Canadians were evacuated due to wildfires. Increasingly catastrophic events include Kelowna, BC (2003), Slave Lake, Alberta (2011), and now Fort McMurray, Alberta (2016). Canada’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) says three trends contribute to the likelihood of more fire disasters in Canada—more exposure as populations move into wild lands, climate change impacts, and deteriorating forest health conditions causing forest fuel accumulations.
Fort McMurray, May 2016, is the most costly disaster yet in Canadian history. It forced 90,000 citizens to evacuate and destroyed more than 2,400 buildings. Another 2,000 residents in nearby communities were displaced, their homes declared unsafe due to contamination. The fire spread to northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, destroying forests and impacting Athabasca oil sands operations nearby. Shell, Suncor Energy and Syncrude operations were scaled back. No official fire cause has yet been determined.
ICLR examined neighborhoods at the forested fringes of the city, and acreages nearby discounting direct contact from flames or radiant fire heat as the problem. It concluded wind-driven embers as the probable cause of much of the destruction. Once established, the fire spread from structure to structure, a pattern called ‘wildland/urban interface disaster sequence.’
A set of conditions in urban areas allows for ignition of structures from flames or embers. Typically, when fire behavior peaks due to low humidity, high wind, and very dry fuel, it spreads rapidly with extreme intensity. The winter preceding Fort McMurray’s fires was drier than usual, thus the snowpack melted quickly. This combined with high temperatures, created a ‘perfect storm’. The wildfires will alter how governments, communities and industry prepare for, respond to, and recover from future wildfires to reduce losses. Losses can be reduced by widespread adoption of risk mitigations within the home ignition zone and steps to further secure a community.
Canada’s FireSmart program helps communities reduce risk of wildfire damage https://www.firesmartcanada.ca/become-firesmart/community-members/
Canadian wildfire shifts north, prolonging oil sands shutdown. Reuters Canada. May 17, 2016. http://www.thestar.com.my/news/world/2016/05/18/canadian-wildfire-shifts-north-prolonging-oil-sands-shutdown/
Risk reduction status of homes reconstructed following wildfire disasters in Canada.
Alan Westhaver, M.Sc., September 2015. http://www.iclr.org/images/Westhaver_wildfire_report_2015.pdf
The State of Canada’s Forests 2016 report, this year’s theme is climate change. http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/forests/report/16496
Why some homes survived: Learning from the Fort McMurray wildfire disaster. Alan Westhaver, M.Sc., August 2016, http://www.iclr.org/fortmcmurraypreliminary.html