UPDATE: One year after breaking out, the Fort McMurray wildfire is still considered an “active fire” by officials in Alberta, despite the cold weather and snow that swept through the region over the winter.
“All of this is in very remote areas really far from communities so there’s really isn’t any threat to anyone,” said Travis Fairweather, an information officer with Alberta Wildfire.
The blaze dubbed “The Beast” burnt an area larger than the province of Prince Edward Island, destroyed thousands of homes and led to the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history.
The fire is considered a “holdover fire,” which Fairweather describes as one that starts in one year, but would still be considered active in another year.
Watch below: Massive wildfire in Fort McMurray prompts largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history
At its hottest point, the fire burned at up to 1,000 Celsius, sending heat penetrating deep into the ground where it can smoulder right through a cold winter.
“It is a common occurrence on large fires,” said Scott Wasylenchuk, Saskatchewan director of Wildfire Operations.
“A lot of the time wildfires will get into the moss, the dirt, the peat moss, the duff and they can burn and smoulder there and then you get one or two embers that may smoulder there all winter and then come spring they get hot and dry and they can flare up again.”
The blaze that ended up spanning nearly 600,000 hectares in Alberta and Saskatchewan broke out May 1 and was brought under control just over two months later on July 4.
“Some of these fires have burnt for years, it depends on the situation, there are some records where fires have got into coal seams and they’ve burnt for decades or centuries, but I don’t think that kind of geology exists in that area,” said John Pomeroy, Canadian research chair of water resources and climate change.
Pomeroy says that the area burnt was hit so hard it will make it harder for water to seep in, thus making it more difficult to put out.
“Many of the soils have been burnt. Areas that are burnt like that are at higher risk of flooding for several years until their soils can redevelop.”
Officials say the fire likely will not be put out until spring, when they plan to bring down the beast once and for all.
“When we’re dealing with a fire of this size it’s just impossible to walk the whole fire and check every area on the ground. We have a lot of planes for infrared scanning, we have a network of lookout towers that can spot smoke,” Fairweather said.
Crews in both Alberta and Saskatchewan are asking for the public to report all smoke sightings in the area, hoping that by the spring they can put out the fire.
“If it kicks up we’ll be on it,” Wasylenchuk said.