Forest Fires in Canada

Forest Fires in Canada

19 May 2011

Alberta is currently affected by drought, strong winds and high wildfire risk. Wildfires continue to burn over the province. Slave Lake, a town with more than 7000 inhalbitants, had been devastated by wildfires. Fore more information see GFMC Updates of 17 May 2011 and 18 May 2011 below the satellite images.

MODIS (Aqua) satellite image of fires burning in Alberta on 18 May 2011 (resolution: 250m)

False colour satellite image (MODIS Aqua, 250 resolution) showing fires burning
South West of Slave Lake in the early afternoon of 18 May 2011.
The fires in the town of Slave Lake (South Eastern edge of the lake)
have been extinguished. Fires continue to burn North of the lake.

Map of Alberta wildfires, 18 May 2011.

Recent news from Alberta and other provinces of Canada:

Canadian wildfires shut Plains’ Rainbow pipeline
Wildfires in northern Alberta have shutdown a pipeline that carries crude from oil-sands projects and may halt more than 55,000 barrels of daily output as companies run short of storage space for their production.

Fires forced Plains All American Pipeline LP to stop cleanup work from an earlier oil spill and shut down its Rainbow pipeline system completely on May 15. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc. and other producers have said they may curtail output because of the pipeline disruption.

Wildfires have destroyed 110,000 hectares (270,000 acres) this year, compared with an average of 2,083 hectares burned by this point during the past five years, according to the Alberta ministry of Sustainable Resource Development. A total of 22 fires are listed as “out of control” by the government. The fires have mainly affected an area northwest of Edmonton.

Canadian Natural Resources may have to shut production of 40,000 barrels a day at its Pelican Lake oil project later today if the pipeline doesn’t reopen, the Calgary-based company said in a statement yesterday.

Cenovus cut its production at Pelican Lake to 8,000 barrels a day from 22,000, said Reg Curren, a spokesman for the Calgary- based company. Cenovus will stop production at the site when storage tanks are full.

Small producers like Calgary-based Exall Energy Corp. have also turned off wells. Exall said in a May 16 statement that it shut 921 barrels a day of output because of the fires and mandatory evacuation orders in the town of Slave Lake.

Rainbow Shut

The northern portion of the 772-kilometer (480-mile) Rainbow pipeline was closed after an April 29 leak of 28,000 barrels of oil. Fires forced evacuation of the cleanup site and closure of the southern portion. The system carried an average of 187,000 barrels a day in 2010, according to the company.

Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board said yesterday it won’t allow Plains to restart the line until further inspection is done.

Syncrude Canada Ltd., the biggest oil-sands miner, continues to produce at normal rates, said Siren Fisekci, vice president for Canadian Oil Sands Ltd., the biggest holder of the Syncrude venture.

Saskatchewan is battling 15 forest fires
Saskatchewan is battling its own forest blazes and won’t be sending firefighting help Alberta’s way, a fire official says.

“Unfortunately, we’re not able to assist Alberta at this time as we have increasing fire dangers throughout the forest in northern Saskatchewan,” said Scott Wasylenchuk, manager of the provincial forest fire centre.

A forest fire in the Slave Lake, Alta., area has left much of the town in charred ruins.

In Saskatchewan, 15 forest fires are underway, Wasylenchuk said.

There are two forest fires of concern, including one in the Meadow Lake Provincial Park area. But no structures are considered to be in danger at the present time, he said.

“We just want to get the message to get out that the forest is very dry,” he said.

Wasylenchuk said above-normal precipitation has fuelled growth to create a layer on the forest floor that is very combustible.

“The grasses dry out very quickly and with the hot weather and winds we’ve been having we are at a high to an extreme danger right across the forest,” he said.

At this time of year, most forest fires are caused by humans, with lightening season still around the corner.

“We’re asking the public to be very vigilant.”

Right now, 134 people are working or patrolling forest fires in Saskatchewan, Wasylenchuk said.

Chief: Wildfire response favours oilsands
While crews contained the wildfire closest to Fort McMurray Tuesday, the fire south of Fort Chipewyan doubled in size and continued to spread north, prompting concerns from the local First Nations chief that his region was being neglected.

“They’re focusing all their attention on the oilsands area,” said Chief Allan Adam. “In my view it seems like the town of Slave Lake and the northern part of Alberta were sacrificed in order to protect the oilsands,” he said.

The fire threatening Fort Chipewyan originated about 10 kilometres north of McClelland Lake and doubled from 40,000 hectares to 80,000 hectares Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning it grew from 80,000 hectares to 110,000.

The fires around oilsands prompted CNRL to evacuate its McKay River Lodge site, said a CNRL spokesman.

It has now spread through the Richardson Back Country, and is only 60 km from the community, said wildfire information officer Whitney Exton.

It is now, by far, the largest wildfire in Alberta — larger than the total area burned in the Slave Lake district, according to the latest SRD summary report.

The next largest fire is 30,000 hectares near Slave Lake, and is still out of control, according to the report.

As the Fort Chipewyan fire spread north it threatened two subsidiary reserves — part of the Fort Chipewyan First Nation — that contained five or six houses at Point Brule and Copper Point, said Adam.

“There are people that stay out in the bush, and there were a couple of them that stay out there year round,” he said.

Those people retreated north to the main community when fires broke out two days ago, said Adam.

Now, the fire has washed over those two encampments, burning out all the trees and bush, but the buildings are still standing, he said.

Exton said SRD is monitoring the situation, but could not confirm the condition of the buildings because a screen of smoke blocked their helicopters.

She did confirm that Point Brule is within the parameter of the fire.

Adam said he thinks the province’s response to the fires is unfair.

“You know, the whole process, because the province has that ‘let it burn policy,’ this fire was not manned at all,” he said.

While there are no crews on the ground, Exton said they are monitoring the fire.

Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesperson for SRD minister Mel Knight, said the extreme behaviour of the fire is preventing them from landing crews.

“I don’t want to get into a war of words with the First Nations chief, but our first priority is human safety, and that includes our crews,” he said.

But Adam said the conditions of the Fort Chipewyan fire are no different than the fires further south.

“They call it ‘extreme conditions,’ but the fire in Fort McMurray is a similar fire to what’s going on to the north,” he said.

When the fires broke out on Sunday, Exton said SRD did scour the Richardson Back Country with helicopters to evacuate people they knew to be in the area.

“Our number one priority is human life and that’s what we’re focusing on right now,” she said.

MacDonnell said the province has 1,000 firefighters on the ground across the province, and is brining in 400 firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario, the last of which will be here tomorrow.

“Obviously we are attacking the fires with our resources,” he said.

While no one is working the Fort Chipewyan fire, resources on fires further south include five fire crews, eight helicopters, four water trucks, three air tankers, and two bulldozer units, according to a media release.

Water bombers leave Quebec to help out in Alberta
Four Quebec CL-415 water bombers, with crews and three extra technicians, took off at 10 a.m. Tuesday to help battle forest fires that have ravaged northern Alberta.

The teams are from the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU).

This was in response to a request for help made late Monday by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). The planes were headed to Lac La Biche in Alberta.

The communiqué from SOPFEU emphasized that meteorological conditions in Quebec in recent days have “contributed to maintain a degree of inflammability in the forest” – in other words, the trees are too waterlogged to catch fire.

Since the end of winter, SOPFEU crews have battled 45 fires covering 37 hectares, far below the average for this time of year. Over a 10-year period, Quebec has an average of 162 forest fires involving 539 hectares of forest by this date.

SOPFEU and other provincial and territorial fire fighting agencies have agreements to help each other in times of need.

Alberta promises $50M in wildfire aid
Alberta is contributing $50 million to meet the immediate needs of victims of the Slave Lake fire and rebuilding the fire-ravaged town.

Officials are now at the evacuation centres assessing the needs of the 7,000 residents. Housing and financial support are the most pressing concerns, said Premier Ed Stelmach on Wednesday.

It’s crucial that residents who have evacuated from Slave Lake and surrounding communities register with the Red Cross, he said in a news release.

“As individual residents will have specific needs and requirements, it is important that we have an accurate list of evacuees.”

The funding will begin flowing by week’s end, said Stelmach.

While firefighters have turned the corner battling the fires in Slave Lake, officials say it’s still too dangerous for residents to return to the northern Alberta community.

At one point on Wednesday, reporters on a media tour of Slave Lake were ordered to take cover in their vehicles after ammunition in a home started to go off.

The main fire inside the town is now considered under control, but it is not out, said Calgary Fire Department spokesman Brian McAsey.

A dozen fires flared up in the town Tuesday when 70 km/h gusts whipped through the area, but firefighters were able to get them under control, he said.

“Right now it’s dangerous to return to Slave Lake, and I’m sorry to say that,” said McAsey.

The province says the two fires outside the town are still out of control.

Slave Lake, located 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, was evacuated Sunday when wildfires suddenly turned and blazed through town, destroying more than a third of its homes, along with the town hall and government centre.

Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee and Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau met behind closed doors Wednesday with town residents sheltered at three evacuation centres set up to help people who had to flee the fires.

Evacuees were told it could be weeks before they will be allowed to return.

Officials say it’s too dangerous to let anyone back into town because the smoke is too heavy, chemicals hang in the air and there is no electricity, power or drinking water.

That was a very emotional, difficult task for us, to speak with our residents but I think the message is we’re working hard on the ground, to get our community up and running, so we can have them back in our community, and start rebuilding our community,” Pillay-Kinnee said after the Athabasca meeting.

Goudreau said that workers can’t start taking stock of the damage until the community is safe. However, he expects a list should be ready “within days rather than weeks.”

“As soon as we finalize it and feel comfortable with its accuracy, that list will be released.”

The news was met with disappointment by residents who still don’t know if their homes were destroyed in the fire.
“Most people want to know when they can go back home, but, I guess the answer we got was ‘weeks’. That’s kind of disheartening,” Wayne MacIsaac.

“We all understand that we cannot go back to the town. We know that,” said Irene Butterworth. “My worst fear is the problem that they had with the water because without good water, you’ve had it.”

Residents also want to know why they got so little warning before the evacuation and why it seemed like so little information filtered down to them over the last few days.

Even as the fire approached the town’s outer limits, residents weren’t hearing anything about a need to evacuate.

An evacuation order was eventually issued, but by then the radio station was on fire and roads in and out of the community were closed.
Insurance companies moving in

Insurance companies are starting to deal with an influx of claims from residents who lost their homes to the wildfires. A number of agents have opened temporary offices in nearby Athabasca in hotels and at the evacuation centre.

Aviva Canada agent John Russell expects claims in Slave Lake to surpass the $200 million in the Kelowna, B.C., fires eight years ago.

That’s because the Kelowna fire mostly destroyed residential homes, while the Slave Lake fire took out homes, businesses and much larger buildings, he said.

Another 200 firefighters from B.C. are arriving Wednesday to help battle 87 fires burning in the province — 23 considered out of control.

Two hundred firefighters from B.C. and Ontario have already joined about 1,000 Alberta firefighters on the ground.

The Alberta government imposed a provincewide fire ban on Tuesday in response to high wildfire risks. People who ignore it face a maximum $5,000 fine and could be held responsible for the costs linked with fighting the fire.

RCMP charged a 24-year-old man with arson Tuesday after a wildfire late Saturday afternoon in Fox Creek. The fire started behind some apartments and began moving toward the town.

Gound crews and water bombers fought the fire for hours, saving the town, said police.
Overwhelmed by donations

Meanwhile, relief officials have been overwhelmed by the number of donations they’ve been receiving to help people displaced by the fires. The Canadian Red Cross on Tuesday asked people not to bring them household goods, food or clothing.

The relief organization only accepts cash donations, which enables volunteers to get evacuees exactly what they need.

Information on how to donate can be found on the website of the Canadian Red Cross.

A rescue effort was also underway to round up pets that were displaced by the fire.

The first truckload of 80 animals was brought to a shelter outside the evacutation centre at the Edmonton Expo Centre early Wednesday morning.

“The majority of the animals … we know their owners,” said Edmonton Humane Society spokeswoman Shawna Randolph.

“It’s basically a heartwarming place to be right now because we’re seeing reunion after reunion of people who didn’t think that they’d ever get to see their lost pet.”

Shelter workers have only seen one animal with injuries related to the fire. A cat had singed whiskers and paws, Randolph said.

Other Media Reports of fires in Alberta:

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