Last update: September 18th, 2019 at 6:00 pm
Unseasonably hot conditions, low humidity, and strong winds created a tinderbox in Alberta, Canada in April and May 2016. Temperatures reached a summer-like 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) on May 3 while winds gusted over 20 mph (32 km/h). With such extreme conditions, the province has been battling dozens of blazes the past several weeks.
The most destructive wildfire so far this season is the Fort McMurray wildfire, in the Northern Alberta region, from the southwest, with evacuation alerts and emergency notices for Gregoire, Centennial Park, and Wood Buffalo going into effect on May 1. An air inversion settled over the region on May 2-3, keeping smoke low to the ground and giving the impression that, perhaps, the fire had begun to die. It had not done any such thing.
By May 4, reports estimated that 1,600 structures had been destroyed and approximately 80,000 evacuees had fled their home in Fort McMurray. A provincial state of emergency was declared. By May 7 the fire had reached 2,000 square kilometers in size and was moving towards Saskatchewan. Evacuees who had been moved north of the fire had to be evacuated and brought south of the fire.
By May 9, cooler and more seasonal weather had returned, giving firefighters much-needed natural assistance in controlling the massive blaze. Even with improved conditions, the government has cautioned that the blaze continues to move towards the Saskatchewan border and that there will be no quick resolution to the situation. However, the situation within Fort McMurray has improved enough to allow damage assessments to begin.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley released a statement stating “We’ve lost about 2,400 structures, but we saved almost 25,000. It’s not yet safe to return. But it will be made safe. It will be a home you return to. All of Alberta will have your back until that work is done.” The Fort McMurray blaze had reached 204,000 hectares on May 9, and was expected to grow. A total of 29 wildfires were reported burning in the province on that day, with a total of 1,547 firefighters, 121 helicopters, 194 pieces of heavy equipment, and 28 air tankers battling the fires.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite captured this true-color image on May 6, 2016. Red hotspots mark areas where the thermal sensors on the instrument detected temperatures hotter than background. When accompanied by smoke, such hotspots are diagnostic for actively burning fire.
This cluster of fires is in the area of Fort McMurray. Large fires often have a central area that appears inactive, as most of the fuel has been consumed. At the edges of such a burn scar, however, individual hotspots show that the fire remains active and hot where fuel is present.