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Fort McMurray wildfire: How do you fight the blaze?

Initial efforts to contain the blaze didn’t work and have led to difficult questions about what firefighters can do to slow the blaze.

In some cases, fire agencies allow wildfires to run their course, but the blaze in northern Alberta, which has forced the city of Fort McMurray to be evacuated, is definitely not one of them, according to one expert.

“I can assure you right from the get-go, this one was determined to be an unwanted fire,” Mike Flannigan, University of Alberta professor and wildfire expert said.  “They wanted to put it out immediately.”

Initial efforts to contain the blaze didn’t work and have led to difficult questions about what firefighters can do to slow the blaze.

READ MORE: Dramatic video shows Fort McMurray residents fleeing raging wildfire

According to Flannigan, there are three key ingredients to a wildfire.

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“There’s fuel. The stuff that burns. Ignition – people or lightning. And weather. Once a fire is up and running, like we have in Fort McMurray, it will continue to burn until it runs out of fuel or the weather changes,” he explained.

In order to combat the fire, firefighters will need cooler, damper weather, but there is technology and a few techniques firefighters can use to try to put out the fire.

Alberta’s assistant deputy minister of forestry, Bruce Mayer, says there are nine air tankers, more than a dozen helicopters and roughly 100 firefighters to work with.

Massive wildfire in Fort McMurray prompts largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history
Massive wildfire in Fort McMurray prompts largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history

The tankers and choppers will attempt to dump water (and other options) onto the fire but unfortunately there is a limit to how much air power can be used.

“We can’t actually put more stuff in the air because it will become dangerous if we have too many planes in the air with all of the smoke,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said during a press conference Tuesday.

READ MORE: Live updates of Fort McMurray wildfire

So they will have to look to win the fire on the ground and will be looking to use major roadways and rivers to their advantage.

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“You use natural firebreaks where you have them, rivers, highways and then you build fire lines,” Flannigan said.

A fire line is when a trench is established in order to take away the fire’s fuel.

Unfortunately, the natural fire lines have failed to contain the Fort McMurray fire.

“When it is hot and dry and windy, it can jump across a river like it did when it jumped across Athabasca River,” Flannigan explained.

He also said the fire “jumped across Highway 63 in a few places I am aware of at least.”

READ MORE: Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean loses his home

Another option is a technique known as a backburn or controlled burn, where a blaze is started ahead of a fire to attempt to take away the fuel.

But it was not an option in Alberta Tuesday.

“You can try and steer it with back burns but that becomes very tricky when the winds are shifting and when you are near a community like Fort McMurray,” Flannigan said.

It will become a completely different task if the community goes up in flames, as was the case in Slave Lake in 2011.

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READ MORE: Photos of the Fort McMurray wildfire through the eyes of evacuees

While Flannigan said lessons from Slave Lakes could be applied to the fire in Fort McMurray.

“In Slave Lake, when the fire entered town, the fire chief took a bulldozer and said, ‘we’re going to bulldoze houses to stop a fire,’ and that may have saved the town.”

It may take a similar drastic measure to put an end to the fire in Fort McMurray, Flannigan said.

Notley said the situation in Fort McMurray is “very scary” and thanked first responders and volunteers for their efforts in fighting the blaze.

“Our hearts go out to the residents and citizens of Fort McMurray today. I know that it is a very scary time, I know it’s a very, very stressful time for people having to leave their homes under these conditions,” Notley told reporters. “Our focus is completely and entirely right now on ensuring the safety of people, of getting them out of the city and ensuring they are safe and secure.”

WATCH: PM Trudeau explains how Canadians can help people in Fort McMurray

PM Trudeau explains how Canadians across the country can help people in Fort McMurray
PM Trudeau explains how Canadians across the country can help people in Fort McMurray

Prime Minister Trudeau said he has spoken with Notley and has spoken with officials across the country who are looking to help.

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“I’ve been dealing with offers of support and calls from the Atlantic Provinces all the way out to B.C. as people are looking for how they can support their friends and neighbours as they go through this difficult time,” Trudeau said Wednesday in Ottawa.

“I was on the phone with Premier Notley yesterday afternoon offering our total support as a government to anything that is needed in the short term but as well in [the long term].”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan confirmed a formal request for assistance has been received from the Alberta government.

“We’re making all assets available,” he said in a conference call from Germany. “Whatever the province and the emergency operations centre assesses that they need, as I stated to Minister Goodale, everything in the Canadian Armed Forces will be made available.”

*With files from Andrew Russell