Fire as Destructive as Canada’s Ft McMurray Wildfire can happen in Australia
As the massive and destructive wildfire continues to burn a path through Central Canada, an Australian fire expert has issued a stark warning: it could easily happen here: “Our cities can burn,” said David Bowman, a Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania.
“That might seem tremendously alarmist. But this fire in Ft, McMurray tells us that if you get just the right combination of the fire being in the right place and the fire weather doing the right things for a disaster – there’s absolutely no reason why this scale of economic impact, of burning into some of our cities, is not out of the question.”
The wildfire in Alberta ignited on 1 May and, fed by hot weather and tinder dry lands, quickly flared up to a huge wildfire now dubbed “The Beast”.
Authorities say it is the country’s most destructive wildfire in memory, and it could be months before it is under control. Officials warned only significant (heavy) rain could halt its spread.
The inferno has scorched 161,000 hectares, or 1610 square kilometres, officials said. To put that into perspective, it’s roughly:
twice the size of Canberra, or 14% of the size of the Greater Sydney statistical area, which extends from Wyong and Gosford in the north to the Royal National Park in the south, and to the Blue Mountains in the west, or 17% the size of the Greater Melbourne statistical area, which extends to the Mornington Peninsula, the Macedon Ranges, the Yarra Valley and south-west to Geelong.
The Canadian blaze is so hot and so intense that it has formed its own weather system. The thundercloud produced by the blaze is creating its own lightning, and consequently setting more trees alight.
All of the 88,000+ residents of Ft. McMurray, a city about 650 kilometres north of Calgary, were forced to evacuate last week as the flames bore down.
That’s the equivalent of evacuating Australian cities the size of Albury-Wodonga on the NSW-Victorian border, Launceston in Tasmania or Rockhampton in Queensland.
Officials have reported that at least 1600 properties in Ft. McMurray had been destroyed.
Professor Bowman, having just returned from Canada, agrees with fire expert Mike Flannigan from Alberta, who said that what was happening in Canada was entirely consistent with climate change. As a result, more of these types of huge wildfires can be expected.
Professor Bowman said there are a couple of “really big take-home messages” for Australia from the situation in Canada.
One is to realize that this could happen in Australian cities, and that residents needed to “take responsibility for living in these dangerous, flammable places.”
Residents must prepare their houses properly, have an evacuation plan, and not rely on the idea that “someone’s going to come and put the fire out” if a bushfire did break out, he said.
“I think the fire experts understand how bad things can get. What I think these fire events are doing is bringing right up into the consciousness of the general public the scale of this wildfire problem,” he said.
Most people sort of have an awareness of it, but it is somebody else’s problem and they’re underestimating the risk. There just isn’t a high level of situational awareness that this scale of catastrophe could happen.
Hopefully we can start cutting through and getting some serious traction and serious engagement.”
Living in flammable environments is not 100% safe and experts and officials are seeing complex of factors building up to such a nightmare scenario. It sounds extreme, but our cities could burn down, or parts of our suburbs could burn down, it can happen.
By Rhys O’Connell
Paul Ebeling, Editor