Fire officials have not yet determined the cause of the wildfire still blazing across Alberta, Canada. They have, however, determined that its starting point was a remote area 9.3 miles from Fort McMurray. (See related article, “Lessons From The Alberta Wildfire: Be Prepared.”
If Canadian statistics mirror those of the United States, there’s a 90% chance that this wildfire was caused by humans.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the US Department of Interior has reported that less than 10% of US wildfires are caused by lightning or lava; rather, the vast majority of wildfires are caused by human negligence or arson. We typically think of human-caused wildfires as resulting from an unattended or improperly extinguished campfire, or perhaps a negligently discarded cigarette butt.
But there are other human causes, as well: A California wildfire which burned thousands of acres was determined to have been caused by a motorist stopping his car on tinder-dry grass while driving through a national forest. In 2009, a blaze that destroyed more than 75 Santa Barbara homes was sparked by a power tool being used to clear brush.
The results can be devastating. Firefighters on the front lines of the Alberta fire are witnessing an event seldom seen: Within the span of a few days, the blaze swelled from approximately 3,000 acres to more than 544,000 acres. More than 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged by the fire, according to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
Wood Buffalo Fire Chief Darby Allen called the fire “unprecedented” with respect to its speed. “The way this thing happened, the way it travelled, the way it behaved – they’re rewriting their formulas on how fires behave, based on this fire,” he said.
Mike Flannigan, a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, noted that, in addition to creating its own weather and generating lightning, the Alberta wildfire also generated new fire starts, which is something he had never heard of before.
Unseasonably dry conditions, low humidity and shifting winds created the “perfect storm” for this Alberta disaster, enabling the fire to swiftly transform from one that was largely under control into a raging blaze. At one point, the fire managed to jump a half-mile-wide river, and the smoke from the fire could be seen as far south as Iowa. (See related article,“California Drought Breeding More Wildfires,“ for further drought information.)
In the US, the National Interagency Fire Center recently released its National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for the 2016 fire season (from May to August). According to the report, Hawaii, Alaska and the Southwest face an “above-average threat of wildfires this summer,” while the rest of the country is expected to experience normal or below-normal threat conditions.
So far this year, the US has experienced about the same number of wildfires as in the first few months of 2015. However, the amount of actual acreage burned so far in 2016 is five times that which was burned as of this time last year.
A study presented in 2013 by Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences researchers concluded that by 2050 the number of wildfires in the West could rise by 50 percent, and across the U.S. the number could double.
They also predict that the wildfire season “will be about three weeks longer, up to twice as smoky, and will burn a wider area in the western states.” They attribute this increase to climate change.
But Kerry Anderson, a fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, said the long-term data needed to establish the line between climate change and an increase in wildfires is not yet available. “We know that forest fires occurred 100 years ago, but it’s not really until the last 15 or 20 years that we’ve gotten a fairly reliable record of the fire area being burned every year,” Anderson said.
Clearly, more research is needed to determine the actual effects of climate change on the threat of wildfires nationally and internationally.
In the meantime, homeowners residing in wildfire-prone areas can take advantage of the research and development of cutting-edge technology to protect their property. The Frontline Wildfire Defense System, working much like an exterior sprinkler system, uses a mixture of water and firefighting foam to quickly extinguish embers and firebrands. The foam is biodegradable and can be washed off with water once the fire threat has been removed.
Wildfires are largely unpredictable, but protection is available. Don’t be caught unprepared.