Fort McMurray’s Fire: How Did it Begin?

Fort McMurray’s Wildfire: How Did it Begin?

In spring 2016, the Fort McMurray fire forced the evacuation of almost 90,000 residents in Alberta, Canada1 and consumed about 590,000 hectares.2 It temporarily shut down 40 per cent of Canada’s total oil sands output, though it did not damage production facilities.3 Burning questions, such as how the fire started and why it was so powerful, remain unanswered. 4

Fort McMurray is the industrial centre of Canada’s ‘dirty’ fuel oil sands industry, well known for its harmful environmental impact.5 As such, exposing the influence climate change had on the fire opens some uncomfortable conversations for the oil industry.6

How did the Fort McMurray fire start?

Royal Canadian Mounted Police have surmised the wildfire was caused by human activity and not by lightning.7 This is not unusual. Less than 10 per cent of US wildfires begin naturally; human negligence or arson starts the rest.8 But, whilst the initial spark is yet to be identified, the factors that set the scene for Canada’s most expensive disaster are evident.9

Our planet’s temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.18°C per decade since 1981.10 The main culprit for this increase is the burning of fossil fuels, for example oil, gas and coal.11 This releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, trapping heat and creating the ‘greenhouse effect’.12 But, the effects are not felt evenly across the globe.

Canada is experiencing warming at more than twice the global rate.13 In boreal forests such as those around Fort McMurray, this rise in temperature is producing the ideal setting for wildfires.14

How did climate change affect the Fort McMurray 2016 wildfire?

Although the wildfire’s initial spark is unknown, it was climate change that created the conditions that lent the fire its remarkable force.15 The nearby forest was unseasonably dry with low humidity and shifting winds.16 This gave the fire ‘unprecedented’ speed and has changed local firefighters’ understanding of how wildfires behave.17 The blaze released extraordinary amounts of energy, creating lightning, which then generated new fires.18 It was also able to jump a kilometre-wide river.19

Climate change reduces the amount of precipitation, leading to droughts and extremely dry soil and vegetation.20 Warmer winters mean that there is less snowfall and therefore smaller fire-preventing snowpacks.21 Spring snowmelt is occurring increasingly early in the year, and Canada now has a longer fire season than ever before.22 This contributes to more extensive and intense fires.23 In fact, the amount of Canadian land being consumed by fires annually has doubled since the 1970s.24

The future of Canadian wildfires

As climate change continues to raise the Earth’s temperature, fire-prone conditions are highly likely to continue to increase.25 The area burned is predicted to double in size by the end of the century.26 Whilst the 2016 Fort McMurray fire was singular in the damage it caused, 2017 set a new record for the area of land burned, which was subsequently broken the following year.27 Wildfires like this can even take the oil sands industry offline; production levels of one million barrels per day were halted during May 2016, for example.28 But, to prevent future catastrophes and curtail the global temperature increase, we must make a permanent transition to renewable energy sources and massively reduce our CO2 emissions.

Sources

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