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Extreme fire event in Fort McMurray continues unabated, Canada

extreme-fire-event-in-fort-mcmurray-continues-unabated-canada

The massive wildfire in the Canadian province of Alberta that entered city limits of Fort McMurray late Tuesday, May 3, and caused mandatory evacuation of the entire city continues to grow in size. Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Mackenzie County near High Level, as of May 5. Residents of evacuated areas should not attempt to return home.

All efforts have failed to suppress the large fire that entered Fort McMurray, officials said. A provincial state of emergency was declared by the Alberta government Wednesday evening, May 4, as the raging fire showed no signs of weakening.

88 000 people who have fled from Fort McMurray now face a long wait before they can return to their homes, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said at a press conference held 23:05 UTC on Thursday, May 5 (18:05 local time).

The wildfire grew from 10 000 hectares on Wednesday evening, May 4, to about 85 000 hectares by dawn Thursday, May 5. The fire's progress had slowed significantly over Thursday, and by the end of Thursday officials continued to estimate its size at 85 000 hectares.

"We're not out of the woods yet," said senior wildfire manager Chad Morrison. "We still have a long way to go." The main body of the fire, now south of the city, is expected to continue to burn out of control, perhaps for many days to come. 

"Let me be clear, air tankers are not going to stop this fire," Morrison said. "This is an extreme fire event. It's going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain to help us."

“[The fire] has begun to create its own weather, even creating its own high winds yesterday, and even lightning was coming from the smoke clouds,” Morrison said.

Current situation
23:05 UTC on Thursday, May 5

  • A provincially declared state of emergency for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is in effect.
  • Fire conditions remain extreme, with 18 new starts across Alberta yesterday [May 4]. A total of 49 wildfires are burning, with seven considered out of control, 12 being held, 23 under control, and seven turned over to the responsible parties.
  • Cooler temperatures of 16 °C (60.8 °F) are predicted, but lower humidity and winds at 25 km/h (15.5 mph), gusting to 40 km/h (24.8 mph), make weather a significant factor.
  • More than 1 110 firefighters, 145 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers are fighting the fires.
  • Mandatory evacuation orders are in place for Fort McMurray, Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, Fort McMurray First Nation and Mackenzie County near High Level. Residents of evacuated areas should not attempt to return home.
  • Emergency gas and diesel are temporarily available along Highway 63.
  • Albertans can call 310-4455 for information and stay up to date on the Alberta Emergency Alert and Alberta Wildfire apps.

Fort McMurray wildfire by Suomi NPP / VIIRS + Fires and Thermal Anomaly layer. Acquired May 5, 2016. Credit: NASA/NOAA/DoD

There are currently 11 reception centers operating within the province. All evacuees (whether they’re staying at hotels, in campgrounds or with family or friends) need to register by calling the Red Cross at 1-888-350-6070. This will ensure officials know how to reach you and verify you got out safely. Evacuees staying at reception centers can register reception center staff.

Closures and affected services

  • All provincial offices in Fort McMurray are closed due to the evacuation.
  • The unpredictable situation caused by wildfire is causing periodic closures on Highway 63 and Highway 881. Both highways are open to south-bound traffic with spot closures as conditions require. North-bound traffic is restricted to emergency vehicles and other essential travel at the junction of Highway 63/881.
  • There are traffic controls in place at the Highway 63/881 junction. Priority is given to emergency responders. Southbound traffic is allowed.
  • Traffic controls are also in place at the Highway 63/69 (Airport Road) junction and the Highway 63/Parsons Creek Interchange.
  • Traffic is allowed to flow out of Fort McMurray but only emergency responders and disaster relief efforts are allowed to travel into the city.

According to some estimates, over 1 600 homes and buildings have been destroyed so far. The fire also reportedly caused major damage near the Fort McMurray International Airport overnight, and there are still no flights going in our out.

Landsat imagery

At 12:34 local time on May 3, 2016, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite acquired this false-color image of the fire. At the time, the fire was burning southwest of downtown Fort McMurray

Image credit: USGS/NASA Landsat-8/OLI

The image combines shortwave infrared, near infrared, and green light (OLI bands 7-5-3). Near- and short-wave infrared help penetrate clouds and smoke to reveal the hot spots associated with active fires, which appear red. Smoke appears white and burned areas appear brown.

On May 4, 2016, the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) on the Landsat 7 satellite acquired the following false-color image of the wildfire.

Image credit: USGS/NASA Landsat-7/ETM+

Featured image credit: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Fort McMurray – May 5, 2016.

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