The Devastating Fort McMurray Wildfire and What It Means for 2016 Wildfire Season

May 11, 2016
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

The terrible wildfire around Fort McMurray in Alberta continues to rage, although there is increasing hope that changes in the weather may help bring things under control soon. As residents and local and national officials slowly start to take stock of the devastation and what recovery might look like, experts are also being asked broader questions about what caused this catastrophic fire and how to prepare for the growing threat of wildfires under a future of hotter, drier conditions.

A satellite image of the Fort McMurray wildfire, Alberta, Canada on May 4, 2016. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the USGS.

A satellite image of the Fort McMurray wildfire, Alberta, Canada on May 4, 2016. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the USGS.

The 2015 wildfire season was record-breaking

To back up a bit, earlier this year, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) released a report highlighting several record-breaking statistics for the 2015 wildfire season, including:

  • Most acres burned in a single year: 10,125,149. Of that, Alaska accounted for just over half, at 5.1 million acres burned
  • Costliest wildfire season: federal firefighting costs topped $2.1 billion, with costs to the US Forest Service alone of over $1.7 billion.

Alaska, Oregon, Washington, and California all experienced some of their worst wildfires on record in 2015. Florida also saw an above normal wildfire season (see map).

There were 1,052 large or significant wildfires reported in 2015

There were 1,052 large or significant wildfires reported in 2015, mostly clustered in the Northwest and California.

There were a number of reasons it was an especially bad year, including the strong El Niño and the extended drought and low snowpack in parts of the Western US.

One significant risk factor: Climate change is contributing to hotter, drier conditions in the Western US, setting the stage for longer, more severe wildfire seasons.

Our past efforts to limit wildfire have also led to a dangerous build-up of flammable fuelwood in forests, which contributes to larger fires when they do break out. And growing development in the wildland-urban interface is putting more people and property in harm’s way.

Infographic-Western-Wildfires-and-Climate-Change-Panel-2-Full-Size

The devastation in Fort McMurray

2016 is already off to a devastating start with the fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The wildfire has displaced 90,000 people and burned at least 2,400 structures, covering nearly 900 square miles according to the latest estimates. Environment Canada has warned that smoke from the fire is causing poor air quality and poses health risks in many parts of Alberta. Essential services like power, water, and gas have been severely affected. It will be weeks before people can begin to return and much longer for the city to recover.

Research from Bank of Montreal Capital Markets puts the estimated cost of the wildfire to insurers at $2 billion to $3.6 billion USD (or $2.6 to 4.7 billion Canadian dollars), which would make it the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. (They also estimated that it could even reach as high as $7 billion USD or $9 billion Canadian dollars.)

What to expect from the 2016 wildfire season

For North America as a whole, the season has started early, with wildfires in many places including Canada, Kansas, Arizona, Alaska, and high risk in southern Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula.

Wildfires have already burned nearly 1.5 million acres across the U.S., nearly five times the amount that had burned at this time last year. Looking ahead, 2016 is projected to be a less severe wildfire season overall because the El Niño risk has diminished, but some parts of the country are still projected to have a bad season.

The latest wildfire outlook maps from the NIFC show above-normal fire risks in May for Alaska, Hawaii, and the Southwest; and in June for parts of California and the Southwest, Hawaii, and increasing risk in Florida. July and August show above normal risk in a significant area of California, Nevada, and Idaho as well as continued risk in Florida (see maps). Not surprisingly, many of the areas with high wildfire risk overlap with areas currently in drought.

June 2016 wildfire outlookJuly August wildfire_outlook

The rising costs of fighting wildfires

In what has become a depressing yearly trend, we are also seeing the costs of fighting wildfires continue to rise every year. Last August the Forest Service released a report that tallied the steeply rising costs of fighting fires.

According to the report: Firefighting costs now consumes over 50 percent of the US Forest Service annual budget, and could get up to two-thirds of their budget by 2025, up from 16 percent a decade ago. Added to this are the significant costs to people who lose property and livelihoods, damage to ecosystems including watersheds, and the public health costs of wildfires.

Preparing for worsening wildfire seasons

Scientists and forest experts know that climate change is already contributing to growing wildfires risks and that these risks will increase as temperatures rise. The growing dangers mean that we have to change how we prepare for and fight fires.

  • We’ve got to ensure adequate funding for firefighting, and for measures to limit the future risks of fires through fuels management (e.g. thinning and prescribed burns). As I discuss in a previous blog post, this means moving forward legislation like the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. Although there is bipartisan support for this type of legislation, it has repeatedly foundered in Congress (most recently in last December, when it was almost a part of the overall budget deal). It’s past time for this commonsense measure to become law.
  • We have to take steps to limit development in the wildland-urban interface which increases risks to people and property
  • We have to manage our forests better to take into account climate change, maintain healthy forest ecosystems, and limit wildfire risks
  • And we have to make deep cuts in the carbon emissions that are driving climate change

The 2016 wildfire season is just getting underway and, sadly, we are already seeing a repeat of many of the tragedies of other recent fires seasons. Unfortunately, our past emissions pretty much guarantee that temperatures will rise and wildfire risks will grow over the next few decades. We simply have to change how we respond to these threats to better protect people and our forests–business as usual will not do.