Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Fiery Beast Yet Lives

"Just given the size, scope and complexity of the Fort McMurray [Alberta] wildfire, firefighters will continue to monitor the area."
"Honestly, you wouldn't see anything [above ground]; these hot spots are quite deep down."
Laura Stewart, wildfire information officer, Government of Alberta

"Literally, you've got men and women out there on their hands and knees feeling for heat."
Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer, Province of British Columbia
The Horse River Fire at its peak surges behind abandoned vehicles on  Alberta Highway 63 near Fort McMurray on Saturday, May 7, 2016.
Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg The Horse River Fire at its peak surges behind abandoned vehicles on Alberta Highway 63 near Fort McMurray on Saturday, May 7, 2016. 
 
Around High Level, Alberta, the smouldering remnants of a 40,000-hectare fire left over from 2015 opened the 2016 fire season when fire crews managed to extinguish the remnants which had over-wintered, to present a threat from spring forward. Winter temperatures and snow often snuff out smaller fires but conflagrations such as the Horse River Fire, the true name of 'The Beast' that ravaged Fort McMurray six months ago, are much more difficult to put out.

The Horse River Fire peaked with temperatures of 1,000 C. Heat was radiated deep under the forest floor. Peat, tree roots and mineral-rich soil deep under that forest floor all readily ignited. It was the Fort McMurray Regional fire chief Darby Allen who named the Horse River Fire 'The Beast'. When it advanced  toward the suburban outskirts of the oilsands capital, the threat it represented appeared too difficult to transcend.

Jerome Garot via National Post
Jerome Garot via National Post   Wildfires encroach on Highway 63 near Fort McMurray on May 3, 2016

But the regional fire crews orchestrated a desperate triage in an effort to restrain the roaring flames, and keep them from key parts of the city whose citizens had been hastily evacuated only hours earlier. It took no more than a few hours for flames to claim almost two thousand structures, causing an estimated $3.6-billion in damages. Firefighters converged on northern Alberta in a quasi-military effort to tame the beast. But it was a much higher authority who managed to bring it to heel.

Once the fire crossed the border from Alberta to Saskatchewan it was met with a number of summer rainfalls so severe it brought the added agony of flooding to the already desperate residents of Fort McMurray. That was then. Now, crews are resting up for winter, preparing for spring and the last strike against the Horse River Fire, even while the city of Fort McMurray has hardly dented the destruction left in its wake. It is estimated that by 2022 Fort McMurray may be restored.
Larry Wong/Postmedia News
Larry Wong/Postmedia News   Homes destroyed by the wildfire are seen in Fort McMurray on Wednesday, May 11, 2016.
 
For now, however, the fire is just a nightmare memory that will never be forgotten, written in the annals of fear and misery. What is there of the fire is no longer visible, not even smoke, let alone any open flames. In remote areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan, distant from Fort McMurray, the fire is known to be present and it is being monitored as one would a dangerous beast.

Government of Alberta
Government of Alberta   Image of a "holdover fire" smouldering underground throughout the winter. 
 
When the fire was first seen it was two hectares in size. In three days following the initial spotting it had opened a giant maw of 10,000 hectares and swooped into Fort McMurray. Although it has been declared to be in an "under control" state since early July, the fire is in a threatening hibernating state. The beast is preparing to survive over-winter, a phenomenon known as "holdover fire", set to strike once winter withdraws and spring arrives. The fire, like all beasts who enjoy threatening the vulnerable, smoulders, awaiting its advantage.

Holdover fires are known to flare up on spring's arrival, enabling a wildfire of sufficient size to be resurrected so as to constitute the kind of threat that the Beast represented, to burn for years. So, as soon as the 2017 fire season arrives after snow melt, Alberta wildland firefighters will be on the scene, with crews looking to find and destroy the last remnants of MWF-009, the devastating wildfire gifted with a variety of names.

Helicopters will first fly over the area searching for "hot spots" with the use of an infrared camera. If spots are identified, crews will be dropped into the area to commence the process of "coldtrailing" whatever is left of the Horse River Fire. Firefighters moving along the forest floor feel for signs of heat; that's cold trailing. When and as warm spots are identified they are then dug with picks and shovels and water pumped in from a neighbouring creek or dropped from a helicopter, to drown it.

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