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Canadian wildfires grow tenfold; rescuers pray for rain

May 06, 2016 12:16 IST
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In little over 24 hours, the wildfires, which erupted on Sunday and forced the evacuation of about 80,000 people from Fort McMurray in the Canadian province of Alberta, have grown tenfold.

IMAGE: A fire fighting helicopter works over wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in this image posted on twitter May 5, 2016. Photograph: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout/Reuters

Unseasonably hot temperatures, extremely dry conditions and winds of up to 70km/h, helped fuel the fire's spectacular growth to 100,000 hectares (2.4 lakh acres) -- up from just 10,000 hectares (nearly 25,000 acres) the day before. On Wednesday, Notley had estimated that some 1600 structures had already been destroyed by the fire.

Officials said more than 1,110 firefighters, 145 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers were fighting 49 wildfires in the province, with seven of the wildfires considered to be raging out of control. Officials said the fire would likely continue to grow in the coming days, but noted it seemed to be heading away from the community, which lies in the heart of Canada’s oil sands.

IMAGE: The fires have already forced 88,000 people to flee -- the biggest evacuation in the province's history. Photograph: CF Operations/Handout/Reuters

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley warned that the 49 fires, which have already forced the evacuation of the city of Fort McMurray, could spread and devour more territory because "conditions are still tinder dry." And she wouldn't give an estimate on when those flames will be doused.

"The damage to the community of Fort McMurray is extensive and the city is not safe for residents. It is simply not possible, nor is it responsible to speculate on a time when citizens will be able to return. We do know that it will not be a matter of days” Notley said in a press briefing on Thursday night.

IMAGE: A Mountie surveys the damage on a street in Fort McMurray. Photograph: Alberta RCMP/Handout/Reuters

"Right now we are working with industry to do as much air evacuation as possible and we are doing everything we can to establish -- open the highways so we can get fuel up there and then get those folks moving south as quickly as we can," Notley said.

The out-of-control blaze has burned down whole neighborhoods of Fort McMurray in Canada’s energy heartland and forced a precautionary shutdown of some oil production, driving up global oil prices.

IMAGE: Evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires, Ellyse Naughton (left), holds her toy robotic dog as her mother Erin looks at her phone as they camp at the Christina Lake campground in Conklin, Alberta. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, described the week's harrowing events as the largest fire evacuation in Alberta’s history.

"Homes have been destroyed. Neighbourhoods have gone up in flames. The footage we’ve seen of cars racing down highways while fire races on all sides is nothing short of terrifying," he said. The Alberta community looked "like a war-torn corner of the world instead of our own backyard," he added.

A government airlift of those cut off to the north began from oil facility airstrips. The premier said some 4,000 people had already been airlifted to the cities of Edmonton and Calgary late on Thursday.

IMAGE: Fire fighting helicopter works over wildfires that continue to threaten Fort McMurray neighborhoods in Fort McMurray. Photograph: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Handout/Reuters

Chad Morrison, the province's wildfire management specialist, said what crews need most is help from Mother Nature.

"No matter how many air tankers we throw at this thing, we're not going to be able to stop this fire," he told NBC News. "It's going to continue to burn with high intensity for the next several days until we get some rain or cooler conditions."

IMAGE: People prepare food in a kitchen for evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires at the "Bold Center" in Lac la Biche, Alberta. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said Thursday night that "gusting winds have been extremely challenging for fire crews."

The fires have already forced 88,000 people to flee -- the biggest evacuation in the province's history -- and destroyed more than 1,600 homes and buildings.

IMAGE: A young girl sits as evacuees from the Fort McMurray wildfires rest in the sleeping area at the "Bold Center" in Lac la Biche, Alberta. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

The blaze is an extreme example of the power of Mother Nature, but offers some interesting lessons about the science of wildfires.

The conditions that preceded the start of this fire were quintessential wildfire conditions: a seemingly endless supply of dry fuel on the forest floor and in the canopy, and intense heat. All that was needed was a spark, and whether it was caused by human error or lightning (an investigation is underway), once the spark was there, the fire became a beast.

IMAGE: Officers look on as smoke from Fort McMurray's raging wildfires billow into the air after their city was evacuated. Photograph: Topher Seguin/Reuters

"You hate to use the cliche, but it really was kind of a perfect storm," Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service and professor at the University of Toronto, told CBC News.

"There was a mild winter and not a lot of meltwater from the mountain snow pack. Now, a stale air mass has been sitting over Alberta, and it led to very low humidity. Then there was an early, hot spring, and everything got very dry. Then on top of that, it got windy."  

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