For several days in the summer of 2017 residents of southwestern Alberta waited with bated breath as the smoky haze filled their homes and lungs — the Kenow wildfire was blazing its way through eastern British Columbia near the U.S. border towards Waterton Lakes National Park in their corner of the province.
B.C. fire crews were busy focusing on flames closer to towns and cities on their side of the border, but Kenow’s trek across the mountainous Continental Divide into Alberta was inevitable. On Sept. 8, 2017, an evacuation order was issued for the park’s townsite, but hope remained the measure was overkill. But three days later, the sky took on a dramatic, bright orange hue as the fire ripped through the park and towards the communities beyond.
Water bombers and helicopters had sat idle for two days, unable to help because the wind and weather near the fire was just too intense, unpredictable and dangerous. Winds near the blaze were reaching speeds up to 150 km/h.
"We were just getting beat up in the sky too much. Planes were going up and down 400 feet on their own. And when you’re 200 feet off the trees, that’s not good," Mark Missal, the director of aerial resources, said at the time.
Then, in the middle of the night, rolling evacuation orders were issued through the province’s emergency response platform, and RCMP members rushed door to door in the rural area to get people out as the Kenow fire took an unexpected turn and multiplied in size, putting at risk communities that hadn’t even been on alert.
The devastating scene — 35,000 hectares were destroyed, including 19,000 in the national park — has been witnessed many times in the past few years across the country: most dramatically in Fort McMurray in 2016, and most recently in Lytton, B.C., which was levelled late last month.
When a fire threatens a community — or wipes it off the map — there’s an immediate tendency to seek someone to blame. But a warming world has led to wild-land fires growing in intensity, and has created situations where humans’ power is dwarfed by Mother Nature’s mighty rage.
At a certain point, the best that can be hoped for is to keep everyone safe and limit property damage as much as possible.
This spring in Manitoba, wildfire crews left home and reported for duty with exceptional drought conditions gripping the southern half of the province. They are now unlikely to spend more than a few days at home with loved ones until this fall.
As of Wednesday, 131 active fires were burning in Manitoba, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents from five First Nations. There are hundreds more burning across B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.
"It’s not often that we get up to 130 active fires," said Dave Schafer, director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
"This is one of the more challenging seasons the province has faced — and this is my 40th season. There have been similar seasons over the 40 years, but this is definitely one of the most challenging. It would rival the season of 1989 when there were mass evacuations in the province."
The shift in how fires impact communities is a part of an ongoing adaptation to climate change, as we learn to live with fire having a more active presence in our lives, explains Mike Flannigan, the new research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.
Flannigan has studied Canadian wildfires for decades and he acknowledges that from time to time mistakes are made in the field. "We’re all human after all," he said.
However, most of what Canadians are seeing is not the result of human error but rather the realities of trying to fight something as dramatic as a natural disaster with conditions continually trending towards the worse.
"If (the fire is) small, you can put it out with a crew or aerial attack. But by small I mean smaller than a soccer pitch. Sometimes that window is only 15 to 20 minutes that you have, from the time it starts until it’s a soccer-pitch size. So timing is critical. Detection is critical," Flannigan said.
"But then, direct attack — whether by fire crews or bulldozers or aerial attack — becomes ineffective."
The majority of Canadian forests are coniferous — trees with needles. These trees, when they burn, move the flames from the forest floor to the treetops, in what is known as a crown fire.
The fastest spreading part of the blaze is known as the head fire but as soon as it becomes a crown fire, ground personnel can no longer take the heat. In the best-case scenario, they instead attack the sides and tail of the fire to try and pinch it off — but that doesn’t stop an advancing flame.
Often air crews are grounded from attacking a head fire. Instead, they are tasked with dousing valuable targets like homes or cabins to try and prevent them from catching fire. Or they can lay fire retardant down near the fire to try and steer it in a particular direction.
But extinguishing the fire through direct attack isn’t a hope at that point.
"So then they’re only left with one option, and that’s indirect attack — sometimes called backburns. And these are used a lot and they are successful," Flannigan said.
In this situation, fire crews will intentionally light a new fire ahead of the advancing fire. The hope is that the controlled burn will devour all of the trees in the original fire’s path, causing it to run out of fuel and flame out.
"It works. The trick is, if the winds shift, then that backfire turns into the head fire and you may have doubled the problem you had before."
If that wasn’t bad enough, Mother Nature has cooked up a phenomenon straight out of a nightmare: pyrocumulonimbus clouds.
These ominous dark clouds form when a fire gets so big and intense that it creates its own weather system. What makes them unique is their ability to cause embers to rain down from the sky, sparking new blazes kilometres away. They can also be accompanied by dry lightning and even fire tornadoes.
In the 2016 Fort McMurray fire, estimated to have caused $8.9 billion in insured damages, pyrocumulonimbus clouds allowed the blaze to circumvent what officials thought would be a dead end for the flames— the Athabasca River. But the raining embers allowed the fire — aptly nicknamed The Beast — to jump back and forth across the substantial body of water.
"The first (pyrocumulonimbus cloud) I came across was in 1986, so they’ve always existed. But what we’re seeing is they’re becoming more intense and more frequent," Flannigan said.
Such a cloud was tracked by an American meteorologist last month. In a 15-hour period, the cloud caused 710,000 lightning strikes across B.C. and Alberta.
Flannigan and two fellow scientists from Natural Resources Canada conducted research published in 2017 that found that by the end of the century, thanks to climate change, the number of days where fire intensity overwhelms fire crews’ suppression resources will double.
"The challenges of wildfire management through the 21st century include not just dealing with an increased number of fires, but also an increased incidence of unmanageable crown fire," the paper reads.
Climate change brings with it more extremely hot days, drier conditions and warmer nights that no longer offer the reprieve that once naturally helped suppress fire.
Lightning used to be rare on the tundra, but in a warming world fires on that landscape are more likely.
Winters are occasionally not even cold enough to extinguish wildfires that simmer beneath the ground, which allows for fires to rekindle in spring. They’re called zombie fires — more nightmares courtesy of Mother Nature.
Even with all of the changes, there is hope preventative measures can be taken to try and save communities from being the next Lytton or Fort McMurray.
Former Manitoba premier Gary Filmon conducted an evaluation of B.C.’s fire response to devastating fires in that province in 2003. He recommended, among other things, strategic logging and controlled burns, as well as improvements to emergency response communications systems. These principles can largely be deployed across the country, though some regions will see more fire than others.
"It really comes down to communities developing a community wildfire protection plan, which has a number of elements, including the emergency response element, but the mitigation piece as well," said Schafer, the director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
Specifically, he and Flannigan point to the recommendations laid out in the Canadian FireSmart program. Among the recommendations are for communities to create firebreaks around the populated area, whether that’s by clear-cutting to create an open green space, or by strategically placing infrastructure like baseball diamonds and soccer pitches on the outskirts of the town. Pruning forests and planting more deciduous (leafy) trees instead of conifers can all be steps in the right direction.
Actions can be taken by homeowners too, such as ensuring their home is at least 10 metres away from a wooded area.
Short of these actions, having advance notice of a fire’s approach is critical, Schafer said. Not only to safely remove people from the community, but also so sprinkler systems can be deployed to try to save homes, businesses and other property.
"That has been a primary tool in the Canadian wildfire service for doing community protection. But it can only be deployed if you’ve got enough time and enough personnel," Schafer said.
"That’s a tool that we’re using extensively right now, for a lot of remote areas. Because we cannot get enough personnel and equipment to fight fires, but we can identify the values and get the sprinkler kits put out in front of the fire."
What is true across Manitoba now, was true back in the blaze that engulfed Waterton Lakes National Park. Nearly 40 per cent of the park burned in September 2017, but as the morning light came around, the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel in the centre of the townsite remained standing tall, saved by fire crews who poured in from neighbouring communities.
"It was the most intense fire I’ve ever been involved with," Calgary fire district Chief Jeff Primrose said after returning home.
Whether it’s Lytton, Fort McMurray or Waterton, Canadians must recognize that increasing fire intensity means much more than smoke-choked summer skies. It also means increasing dangers. Lytton is unlikely to be the last community to discover this reality.
Sarah Lawrynuik reported on climate change for the Winnipeg Free Press.