Fort McMurray fire seared in our memories

Controlled fire may be mysterious to humans, but uncontrolled fire terrorizes them

CALGARY, Alta. July 8, 2016/ Troy Media/ – It’s been a couple of months since the fire at Fort McMurray hit the news. The anecdotes and images are still fresh: cars and trucks driving through flames, families separated, pets and vehicles left behind, a massive traffic jam down Highway 63.

Who can forget the 301 firefighters from South Africa, hired at $15 a day, not $11.20 an hour? Or StatsCan suspending census-taking on May 5th but encouraging residents to complete their forms online or over the phone?

Scientific accounts are by now settled. Daniel Thompson, a fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, explained that the El Niño cycle led to a dry autumn, thin snowpack and warm spring. On May 2nd, the fire was a kilometre west of town and about 1,200 hectares in size. The temperature was 33 degrees on May 3rd, relative humidity around 12 per cent. The fire had doubled in size and was heading towards downtown. By mid-morning, it had crossed the Athabasca River. By 2 p.m., evacuation began. Next day, the wind picked up to 72 km/hour, creating conditions for the perfect wildfire storm.

By May 4th, the fire was creating towering pyro cumulonimbus clouds along with lightening. Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire expert at the University of Alberta, said that it is rare but not unknown for firestorms to produce their own weather, including lightening.

“But this one generated lightening and then generated new fire starts. That’s the first time I’ve heard of this.”

It was neither the largest nor the hottest fire on record but it was the most traumatic. It destroyed some 2,400 buildings and threatened a major industrial complex. Perhaps more important, as Fire Chief Darby Allen said, was “the way this thing happened, the way it travelled, the way it behaved.”

The speed and intensity with which the fire grew and spread through town brought criticism that the emergency officials did not respond quickly enough. But that was also evidence of what Allen called “the overwhelming nature of the fire.”

Trauma and stress afflicted residents and firefighters alike. Michael Chamberland described his escape from Beacon Hill neighbourhood, which was largely destroyed: “You could feel the wind blowing into the flames and the flames would come towards you, almost licking your car, on top of your car. And that’s when you feel the heat.”

The firefighters, Allen said, experienced “one of the most significant events that any firefighter could ever go through.” They experienced additional stress from their helplessness in the face of what so many called “the Beast.”

Allen used as personal a language as Michael Chamberland. “It did seem to have a brain. It did seem to want to do things that we didn’t want it to do. It seemed to come up with its own plan and fight us at every level.”

Most important may be the symbolism of fire – for first responders, evacuees, and the rest of us. Fire may have first been controlled by a remote hominin ancestor as much as one million years ago, but it remains mysterious.

It is a chemical reaction but seems alive. It must be tended and fed. It can die. It sleeps in embers and can be brought back to life by breath. It has a voice, from the splutter of hamburger fat on a barbecue to the roar of the Beast. It consumes itself into ash and smoke that disappears into the sky.

Controlled fire may be mysterious to humans, but uncontrolled fire terrorizes them. That is one more reason why the Fort McMurray fire will live in memory.

Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

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