[Educator-Gold] DISASTERS: FIRE : ENVIRONMENT GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE : COUNTRIES: CANADA : TOURISM AND TRAVEL: The Fort McMurray Blaze Set the Stage for Even Bigger, Hotter Wildfires

 

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DISASTERS: FIRE :

ENVIRONMENT GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE :

COUNTRIES: CANADA :

TOURISM AND TRAVEL:

The Fort McMurray Blaze Set the Stage for Even Bigger, Hotter Wildfires

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The Fort McMurray Blaze Set the Stage for Even Bigger, Hotter Wildfires

Smoldering peat, laced throughout Canada’s boreal forest, is expected to release tons of greenhouse gas for months to come.

MAY 13, 2016

Leyland Cecco

has written for The Guardian and Al Jazeera, and his images have appeared in National Geographic and The Washington Post.

Take Apart

http://www.takepart.com/feature/2016/05/13/fort-mcmurray-fires

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As is true south of the border, Canadas wildfires are getting bigger, and the annual wildfire season is growing longer. In the past week, the blaze firefighters have nicknamed the beast has displaced more than 88,000, hit the countrys oil production, and grown steadily in size. Ignited by an unknown cause nine miles west of Fort McMurray, within a week it morphed into a 565,000-acre leviathan20 percent larger than the city of Los Angelesjumping highways and four rivers in the process and triggering a mandatory mass evacuation as crews met the flames in a series of pitched battles. The urban skirmishes couldnt prevent the loss of more than 2,400 structures. The damage was a shock in an era of modern detection and suppression techniques. It approached the oil sands production areas, at one point reaching within 20 miles of a bitumen processing facilitys highly combustible chemicals. Estimates of the damage are higher than 9 billion Canadian dollars, on pace to be the costliest natural disaster in the countrys history. Though 90 percent of Fort McMurray was saved, its 61,000 residents are blanketed with uncertainty as officials block their return until the city is deemed safe.

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The Fort McMurray fire, like the devastating 2011 Slave Lake fire in Alberta, differs from blazes common in the province as recently as the turn of the century. A warm, dry winter and spring left little snow in the area, depriving the forest of moisture. Hot, windy weather dried out the trees and grasses of Albertas picturesque heartlands. Then, the weather formed what Gauthier calls the crossover to perfection when relative humidity, temperature, and air pressure all hit 30: 30 percent humidity, 30 degrees Celsius, 30 pounds of barometric pressure. In Fort McMurray, the magic numbers aligned on May 3 and 4. Within days, the fire became so large and intense that it created its own weather system, forming pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or clouds with lightning strikes, which set off additional fires.

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Peat fires are messy fires. They burn significantly longer, are harder to extinguish, and release significantly higher amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases contribute to the climate conditions that ripened Albertas boreal forest for the beast, creating a positive feedback loop.

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The fires also burn deep. After a wildfire tore through Slave Lake, displacing the towns 7,000 residents and destroying 374 structures, Waddingtons research team discovered the fire reached depths of five feet. When peat makes contact with a fire, it combusts at a temperature lower than flame but still smolders. Because the peat is porous, oxygen fuels the flame and carries it beneath the surface, where it becomes elusive. These deeper burns mean more legacy carbon accumulated over centuries is instantly released. Only a few days after the Fort McMurray fire started, crews suspected it had burrowed underground while it surged forward; ground cover with little moisture provided an easy entry point for the flames. Traveling undetected for miles and immune to the changing seasons above it, the flame reemerges far from the original fire. This becomes a threat: Fire crews digging perimeter lines have been caught by a flare-up from underground.

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It can take weeks to months, and certainly potentially over winter, for those smoldering fires to go out, says Waddington.

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Experts fear things will only get worse. Two of Canadas costliest fires, both in Alberta, have occurred over the last five years. Research by Uldis Silins, professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, shows that over the past five decades, as suppression policy reigned, the total area burned in Alberta decreased. But when he and his colleagues looked at the sizes of the largest fires, they found that the past 15 years saw increasingly large blazes. As burning conditions change, under extreme fire weather conditions, thats when we go beyond our capability to suppress them, he says.

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With careful planning, forestry experts have ways to mitigate the power of megafires. Deliberate burning of forest, called a prescribed burn, and allowing natural fires to burn under close supervision are strategies that make sense from an ecological perspective. Large tracts of mature forest just arent natural, says Sharpe.

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But they can be a tough sell to the public. After 400 families in Los Alamos, New Mexico, lost their homes when a prescribed fire burned out of control in 2000, the publics tolerance for the forest management strategy sank. Residents of a California town almost turned violent when officials told them that a naturally occurring fire threatening their homes had not been put out right away, so it could clean up accumulated fuels. And burned tracts accenting untouched forest lack the aesthetic appeal many want when they think of forests. Experts worry that if changes dont come quickly enough, Canada will see more fires like Fort McMurrays.

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The complete article may be read at the URL above.

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Sincerely,
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