Wildfires over Alberta

Wildfires over Alberta

22 March 2012

published by www.ifandp.com

Canada — The wildfires that ravaged Alberta in the season of 2011 were the worst in a 10-year period with the town of Slave Lake being badly damaged. They impacted considerably on oil and gas production as pipelines and oil sands plant were shut down and oil sands work camps evacuated. Even though companies recovered well due to high oil prices, the lost production, according to Statistics Canada, led to figures of stand-alone oil and gas going south by 4.2%, due to wildfires and maintenance shutdowns, enough to detrimentally affect the GDP for the whole of Canada. With growth an illusive target for many economies in troubled 2012, a repeat of last year’s wildfire season for Alberta could affect the economic outlook and its perception from outsiders for the whole nation.
The SRD says that they have had wildfire resources on high alert in high hazard areas throughout the winter and on a basis of need will allocate appropriate resources to prevent, detect and suppress wildfires.

The starting base for the 2012 season does not look good at the moment. There have been below-average moisture levels and more dead and dry grass, which along with spring winds, increase the likelihood of wildfire ignition and of spreading. “We’re starting off with drier than normal conditions, hence the early declaration of wildfire season,” said SRD spokesperson Duncan MacDonnell. “Keep in mind, however, that early dry conditions are not a precursor to a bad fire year, since so many other factors go into ideal conditions for wildfire, including relative humidity (the big one), fuels available to burn, wind conditions and direction etc. Also, early spring is the time we get our heaviest rains, so things could change quickly,” MacDonnell said. “At the moment, as with every spring, the early wildfire threat is not so much in the forest but in the urban-wildland interface –ie farmers’ fields full of cured grass.” The SRD say that they are not expecting any significant levels of precipitation during early March and furthermore that the long-term moisture index in many areas will reach very high to extreme values.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating so to speak. In 2011, 950,000ha of forest burned with 1139 wildfires compared to a five-year average of a little over 78,000ha burned caused by an average of just under 1700 wildfires per season. The causes of the fires are usually just two – humans, which usually comprise 60% of the total (80% in 2011), and lightening strikes accounting for the rest. To be fair, the statistics for 2011 are somewhat skewed by one, very large wildfire, the Richardson Backcountry fire, which was one of the fires that posed a threat to the oil sands. The massive wildfire burned an area to the tune of some 800,000ha and was reported in the media in 2011 as being possibly started by human activity. The blaze started around mid-May 2011 and was not deemed to be under control until the late summer, early autumn, it was, “Officially classified as the second largest wildfire in Alberta history,” said MacDonnell.

Not only are there drier-than-normal conditions to contend with, there is also the spread of the mountain pine beetle through Alberta’s forests. When trees are attacked by the beetle they eventually die and when lit by fire, burn to a savage intensity and can send burning embers up to 400m. Beetle-infested trees are especially dangerous in terms of wildfires when they are in clumps. While short-sharp, extreme temperature fluctuations from above zero to below freezing and a few weeks of below -40 degrees can boost beetle mortality rates, the winter of 2011-12 has shown little sign of such help. The SRD results from surveys of beetle winter mortality that start in mid-April won’t be available until around the middle of June. However, MacDonnell did say that the SRD’s focus right now, “is on single-tree cut-and-burn treatments; contracts were let late last year and contractors will finish up by the end of March, coinciding with the end of the fiscal year.” Thousands of trees have been targeted. “We’re aiming to treat 140,000 trees this year, down from about 180,000 last year,” said MacDonnell. “Southwest Alberta is down to triple-digits in attacked trees (600, last I heard), and across the province in total we’re at about half a million dead and attacked trees, almost all of them widely scattered as opposed to clumped in large swaths.”

The oil and gas industry working in Alberta need to be on the ball and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says it has the FireSmart guidebook, which is sponsored by SRD and CAPP and also the CAPP Best Management Practice for Wildfire Prevention, which is aimed at the upstream sector of the oil and gas industry. A new initiative, a site-specific FireSmart Field Guide for the Upstream Oil and Gas Industry, which is a wildfire risk assessment tool to be used by field operators for upstream oil and gas developments, is under development and in the final stages of editing says CAPP.

At the time of writing, in the SRD’s latest wildfire report, there have been just 10 wildfires in Alberta thus far with only two personnel currently deployed. A number of prescribed burns, 34 in total, have also burned out around 4770ha. However, there is a long way to go and much depends on the amount of spring precipitation be it rain or snow as to if there will be another intensive wildfire season in Alberta.

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