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Burned trees from the 2016 wildfire stand sentinel over a neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 15.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The speed at which this year’s fire near Fort McMurray chewed through the path of the 2016 inferno as it approached the community surprised those fighting the blaze, according to a senior official managing the emergency.

Gavin Hojka, an Alberta Wildfire incident commander assigned to this year’s Fort McMurray crisis, said the fire was more raucous than anticipated, given that it is burning in the same area its predecessor mowed through eight years prior. The extended drought made up for the lack of fuel available to the fire, known as MWF-017.

“We did not expect it to burn as vigorous as it did,” Mr. Hojka said Thursday in a makeshift command centre at Fort McMurray’s old airport. He stopped short of saying authorities were caught off guard, but said it was “a little bit surprising how volatile it burned.”

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Alberta Wildfire Operations Section Chief Derek Gough, Incident Commander Gavin Hojka and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Incident Commander Darren Clarke discuss firefighting strategy during a media tour of the incident command post.Jesse Winter/Reuters

The fire in northern Alberta is now being held, Alberta Wildfire said late Sunday. Authorities on Saturday lifted the evacuation orders and alerts for Fort McMurray and nearby communities. Last Tuesday, officials had instructed roughly 6,000 people to leave their homes, as the fire, burning along the ground, moved aggressively through the 2016 scar.

The intensity of this year’s fire serves as a warning to residents counting on old burns to protect them from future fires, especially as drought lingers in Western Canada.

“With the extreme drought conditions that we’ve been seeing in the last couple of years, these old fires have not been holding,” Mr. Hojka said. As “a rule of thumb, fires are good for 10 to 20 years without any concern. They will act as a fuel break.”

Fires burned a record 17.2 million hectares in 2023, compared with the 10-year average of 2.7 million hectares, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

The 2016 fire, which covered about 579,767 hectares, did not reduce the forest to ash. It burned as a crown fire, racing from treetop to treetop. Plenty of charred trees remain standing, stripped of foliage and poking well above the new growth’s canopy. Busted trees and burned logs remain on the forest floor, along with dry grass and brush.

Mr. Hojka said a number of factors fed MWF-017: “The extreme conditions that we’ve faced there with the weather, high winds, low humidity, relatively high temperatures – but, again, coupled with this ongoing drought of the El Nino from the last year – I think it exacerbated the fuel conditions.”

This year’s fire has burned about 19,451 hectares and has not grown in recent days, according to Alberta Wildfire. More than 40 millimetres of rain has fallen on it since Thursday, and the blaze remains about 5.5 kilometres from Fort McMurray’s landfill, the government agency said.

There were 46 wildfires burning in Alberta on Sunday. British Columbia counted 121 wildfires on Sunday, with 12 out of control. The Parker Lake and Patry Creek fires are classified as wildfires of note, meaning they highly visible or pose a potential threat to public safety.

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Alberta wildfire crews wait for a helicopter to fly to the fire line on the southern edge of Fort McMurray, on May 16.Jesse Winter/Reuters

Evacuation orders remain for Fort Nelson and Fort Nelson First Nation owing to the Parker Lake fire in the province’s northeast. Roughly 5,000 people are under evacuation orders, and the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality on Sunday said it is preparing for residents to return by giving utility providers, medical personnel and grocers early access to the community.

The Parker Lake wildfire damaged 10 properties and consumed four homes, the NRRM said Saturday.

Drought also helped fuel the Parker Lake fire, but the forecast turned in the community’s favour over the long weekend, according to the NRRM. The fire has burned 12,329 hectares, according to B.C. Wildfire Service. The Patry Creek fire, a holdover from the previous fire season, has consumed about 71,792 hectares north of Fort Nelson and is also classified as a wildfire of note.

The Doig River First Nation and neighbouring Peace River Regional District still have evacuation orders in place owing to the Doig River wildfire, northeast of Fort St. John, near the Alberta-B.C. border.

Roughly 89 per cent of B.C. was classified as either abnormally dry or experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions at the end of April, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Drought conditions ranged from severe to extreme in B.C.’s northeast, where Fort Nelson and Doig River are located.

The federal government ranked 95 per cent of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba as abnormally dry or experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions at the end of last month. Drought conditions ranged from moderate to exceptional in Alberta’s north.

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A firefighter adjusts a valve on a sprinkler system in the evacuated neighbourhood of Grayling Terrace.Jesse Winter/Reuters

As of May 2, Fort McMurray and the surrounding area had received between 70 and 90 per cent of its average 365-day precipitation accumulation, according to Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation. By May 8, some areas south and southeast of the city reached 90 to 110 per cent of its average 365-day precipitation accumulation, while areas north and southwest of Fort McMurray remained drier.

Alberta Wildfire on Sunday said there are 233 firefighters, 24 helicopters and 40 pieces of heavy equipment assigned to the wildfire near Fort McMurray. It expected helicopters to be grounded because of weather on Sunday, but crews can now access the fire’s edge, where they work to extinguish hot spots, by ground transport.

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