Like people, forest fires have distinct personalities. Some burn with a steady direction and pace. Others trace an angrier path, burning fiercely but briefly.
The wildfire class known as the "wooey," or "wildland urban interface," is the delinquent of the bunch. These blazes occur when the somewhat predictable elements of a wildfire hit the varied terrain of a city to create a fire whose behaviour becomes erratic.
The fire chief for the Fort McMurray area captured this capricious personality perfectly when he referred to the inferno roaring through his city as a "nasty, dirty fire." As of Thursday afternoon, it had burned across 85,000 hectares – an expanse the size of Calgary – and begun to develop its own winds and weather patterns. "There's even lightning coming from the smoke clouds it created," said Chad Morrison, senior manager of wildfire prevention for the province.
Firefighters have to be equally crafty in fighting such a devious blaze. The methodical approach they bring to every wildfire is a blend of art and science that has evolved steadily over the past four decades.
Here are seven pillars of wildfire fighting that Alberta will lean on to battle the Fort McMurray blaze.
Five broad priorities motivate Alberta's response to any forest fire: human life, communities, watersheds, natural resources and infrastructure. With the Fort McMurray fire threatening all five, firefighters in Alberta have gone into preservation mode, working to protect life and critical infrastructure, such as the water treatment plant and regional airport, which might have been incinerated late Wednesday if not for the efforts of fire crews.
A rigid hierarchy
This militaristic command structure is standardized across the country to ease the sharing of personnel from province to province. These teams are typically made up of 16 to 18 middle managers, who plan and order every aspect of a wildfire response. "They will formulate a plan or several plans and say, 'We will contain the fire at these barriers; it will take this much time and this much money," said David Martell, one of the heads of the University of Toronto's Fire Lab, where researchers devise new ways of managing wildfires. "Every night, they assess what happened and draft a plan for the next day."
The fire prophet
One of the key members of the incident command system, the fire behaviour analyst, is like a psychiatrist for forest fires. The analysts fly the expanse of the fire studying the disposition of the flames, topography of the region and flammability of fuel in its path. They combine those gut observations with input from an array of computer models and weather forecasts to come up with a prediction of the inferno's future movements and potential vulnerabilities. Predictions for Fort McMurray have been complicated by the prevalence of firebrands – flaming debris rising from massive convection current that is capable of lighting spot fires kilometres away from the fire's leading edge. "They use a combination of art and science," Dr. Martell said of the analysts. "In the final analysis, they have to mix science with their own personal experience."
Better fighting through science
Canadian analysts benefit from a variety of cutting-edge computer models with epic names, such as Prometheus and Pandora, that predict a fire's movements based on weather, topography, moisture and fuel. In a worst-case scenario, wildfires move about six kilometres an hour. In one extreme case, a 1968 fire in Central Alberta marched 64 kilometres in 10 hours. Even though the daytime temperature in Fort McMurray was expected to top out at 16 C on Thursday with winds substantially below the 70-kilometre-an-hour gusts that buffeted the city on Wednesday, models were predicting substantial fire growth on Thursday. "Prediction becomes awful complicated in urban areas," said Martin Alexander, a retired senior fire behaviour research officer with the Canadian Forest Service. "The people who traditionally fight forest fires, they know what behaviour to expect in given forest types. But move them into urban areas, and they're not exactly sure what's out there. It's a bit scary for forest firefighters to get into those situations."
Alberta has more than 1,000 forest firefighters at its disposal during fire season, including high-flying rappel and helitack personnel. They earn between $21 and $26 an hour for some of the sweatiest, dirtiest work out there. Currently, 100 forest firefighters are working on the Fort McMurray fire, but with the fire at an out-of-control stage, most are helping the 200 municipal firefighters currently working to save structures and infrastructure within Fort McMurray.
From the air
Helicopters carrying Bambi Buckets and rumbling tanker planes have taken over the skies above Fort McMurray. The province has 10 helicopters and 16 tanker planes on the blaze with another four tankers expected to arrive from Quebec. The largest of those aircraft, the Lockheed L-188 Electra, can carry 11,365 litres of retardant and cruise at 592 km/h. But all that air power is little match for a fire the size of the Fort McMurray blaze. "Let me be clear: Air tankers are not going to stop this fire," Mr. Morrison said. "This fire 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 air tankers will help protect the community, but I expect this fire to continue to grow over the next number of days."
Canadian fire crews take immense pride in their safety record when compared with similar teams around the world. That's no accident. "We have a philosophy to not put them in harm's way," Mr. Alexander said. "No house is worth a firefighter's life."