conditions for second devastating fire almost two decades away

Below charred tree trunks, vegetation begins to return to a hill south of Abasand on June 19, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Below charred tree trunks, vegetation begins to return to a hill south of Abasand on June 19, 2016. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

The spring snowmelt around Fort McMurray usually reveals rolling hills of orange and yellow that would soon be awash in green.

But this year, the charred tree stumps surrounding the city are the standouts as an immolated landscape slowly regenerates. According to Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, it will be 15 to 20 years before enough vegetation - and fuel sources - returns before a repeat of the May 2016 wildfire is possible.

“I know this might be hard because of the memories it can bring back, but if people see a smoke plume in the distance, it’s something minor,” said Flannigan, a who is also director of the university's Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Service.

“Grass fires can happen, but they are easier to manage and are not high-intensity fires,” he said. “It will be awhile before the forest recovers enough for what happened last year to be a possibility. I can tell you the likelihood of Fort McMurray having another catastrophic fire sooner is exceedingly low.”

One year after the sudden wildfire razed 1.5 million acres of land, wild flowers, lichens and green shoots of aspen - the dominant tree species in the area - are sprouting across the hills surrounding Fort McMurray. Berries, mushrooms, weeds and shrubs will follow. 

It might take less than a decade before most signs of last year's wildfire disappear and even longer for some trees to fully mature. Bogs may need between 50 to 60 years to regenerate fully.

But as devastating as last spring was, there was very little in the fire’s behaviour that Flannigan saw as unusual. The boreal forest is designed to burn. The conditions for their genesis - a massive fuel load of dry and dead vegetation across the forest floor, heavy winds, an arid spring - are inevitable.

“As shocking as this can sound to some people, fires like what you saw in Fort McMurray are fairly typical,” he said. “The intensity and the raining of burning embers is pretty normal behaviour in a fire in the boreal forest.”

Wood Buffalo covers a small fraction of the entire boreal forest. The entire ecosystem circles the top half of the globe, stretching across northern Canada and Alaska on one side of the Arctic Ocean, and Siberia and northern Europe on the other side. It is Earth’s largest land biome.

Over its lifespan, disease will spread across the plantlife. The insect population might spiral out of control. The remains of dead trees and vegetation will blanket the forest floor, slowing new growth.

At some point, the spring rains will be late, the air will dry and the dehydrated remains of dead vegetation will become tinder. It will only be a matter of time before lightning - or humans - provide the sparks for a fire.

Once the flames are out, vegetation that would have died from a lack of sunlight will suddenly find themselves out of the shade. As they grow taller, dead trees will fall as they are overpowered by new life.

The air will provide plenty of food for their growth. According to the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, air samples collected by monitoring stations found ammonia levels were 10 times higher than normal last summer and more than doubled average 2016 concentrations.

Nitrogen is vital for plant life, meaning forest fires “may actually be the most important source” for the element, said Sanjay Prasad, executive director of WBEA.

Birds would have flown away, but animals such as deer, caribou, wolves and bears would have tried outrunning the flames. Smaller creatures such as mice and squirrels would have tried burrowing underground.

Species that may not have been in the area could move in, old life could return depending how deep their burrows were or how fast they ran. The challenge will be finding new food sources as the forest regenerates.

Less than three weeks after Fort McMurray's evacuation, Flannigan watched several deer looking emaciated and gaunt near Abasand. Yet, they were surviving.

“Forests have characteristics to survive, and even thrive, in this regimen of fire,” he said. “You get new trees that grow up and then there’s another fire. This is normal. This is mother nature at work and it’s part of the cycle of life.”

The forest has always, and will always burn. What is not normal, argued Flannigan, is that fires now burn faster, hotter and longer. Prasad said these trends have been rising for the last three decades in Canada and the United States.

As winter ends sooner and spring gets warmer, it is difficult to pinpoint a single natural disaster exclusively on man-made climate change. However, the frequency and intensity of disasters, such as forest fires and floods, is increasing.

Fires will not be the only immediate threat for people living within Canada's interior, and hazards leftover from wildfires can linger for years.

A strong wind can suddenly knock down dead tree trunks on unassuming hikers, for instance. Stability issues on hills is also an issue, as development in Waterways has shown, since the trees that held soil together was incinerated. 

Yet, the likelihood of a showdown between flames and humans will rise as long as people live in the boreal forest. 

“I think it’s just the price people have to pay for living in the forest,” said Darren Clarke, chief of the Saprae Creek Volunteer Fire Department, during an April interview. “It is where we are starting to work, live and play. But it’s the forest that makes the rules.” 

Thursday, May 11, 2017 / Fort McMurray Today