As a huge and destructive wildfire burned a path through central Canada, an Australian fire expert has issued a strong warning, “it could easily happen here
“It sounds extreme, our cities could burn down, or parts of our suburbs could burn down, but it could happen,” said Professor David Bowman, a Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania.
“Our cities can burn,” said Professor Bowman.
“That might seem tremendously alarmist. But the wildfire in Ft McMurray is telling 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 north-eastern Alberta was sparked on 1 May and, fed by hot weather and tinder dry terrain, quickly flared up to a massive wildfire that has been nicknamed “The Beast”.
Australian authorities say it is the country’s most destructive wildfire in recent memory, and it could be months before it is under control. Officials warned only significant rainfall could fully halt its spread.”
The blaze has scorched a staggering 161,000 hectares, or 1610 sqk’s, officials said. To put that into perspective, it’s roughly:
- 2X the size of Canberra;
- One 7th 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;
- One 6th 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 was so hot and so intense that it has formed its own weather system. The thundercloud produced by the blaze created its own lightning, and consequently setting more trees alight.
All of the 88,000 residents of Ft. McMurray, a city about 650 km North of Calgary, were forced to evacuate this month, as the flames bore down. That is the equivalent of evacuating Australian cities the size of Albury-Wodonga on the NSW-Victorian border, Launceston in Tasmania or Rockhampton in Queensland.
Officials reported that at least 1600 properties in Ft. McMurray were destroyed.
Professor Bowman has just returned from Canada, where he had received a fellowship with the University of British Columbia to study fire ecology there.
He agrees with wildfire expert Mike Flannigan from Alberta, who said that what was happening in Canada was consistent with climate change. As a result, more of these types of huge wildfires could be expected.
Professor Bowman said he was in western Canada at the start of the northern Spring, which felt more like Summer.
Precipitation was low, about 50% of the average, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the 20’s, as it even passed 30 degrees at the start of May. That is 15 degrees above the region’s average May maximum.
“What I am seeing all around the world now is clear evidence of the consequences of changing climate, which is adding that extra bit to an already messed-up problem,” Professor Bowman said.
“That’s a Key thing, all climate change is doing is making a really serious problem really, really serious.
“Certainly this time of year around Ft. McMurray there should have been a deep snowpack, and it should have just been a big soggy mess.
“In modern times, the scale of this evacuation and the number of houses being burnt and the fact that the drama is still unfolding, I cannot think of anything vaguely comparable in Australia. It’s really the perfect nightmare.”
Professor Bowman said there were a couple of “really big take-home messages” for Australia from the situation in Canada.
One of those was realizing that this could happen in Australian cities, and that residents needed to “take responsibility for living in these dangerous, flammable places”. Residents needed to 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 problem,” he said.
“Most people sort of have an awareness of it, but it’s somebody else’s problem and they’re underestimating the risk. There just is not 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 we’re seeing a whole complex group of factors building up to the nightmare scenario. It sounds extreme, our cities could burn down, or parts of our suburbs could burn down, but it could happen.”
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