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Alberta Wildfires Dubbed “The Beast” Still Burning Out of Control

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Fort McMurray, ABIt’s been a tough week for Canada, a devastating week for Alberta and a horror for those displaced from the oil hub of Fort McMurray, after a massive wildfire, the dimensions of which have never before been seen, swept through their community and sent no fewer than 88,000 people fleeing for their lives.

The best metaphor yet, of the cruel and ruthless devastation, is the iPhone video captured by one homeowner after linking to a live webcam in the living room.

The family fled so quickly, that the lights were left on. The fish in the aquarium are seen lazily swimming to and fro. And then, the scene changes rapidly as the fire that officials have dubbed “The Beast” arrives to consume the home in a matter of minutes. The smoke alarm can be heard blatting away in the background - one of those “talking” models that admonish the occupants to vacate the premises. Thankfully, they already have, as the smoke alarm and the water in the fish tank are no match for what is about to consume them…

It’s a miracle, given the circumstances, that there haven’t been more deaths: so far, only two - but two, too many: 15-year-old Emily Ryan, one of three triplets, and an older nephew of Emily’s stepmother, Aaron Hodgson, perished when their SUV slammed into a logging truck and caught fire as they were attempting to flee the flames and devastation, like countless others.

The sad irony is that the younger of the two was the daughter of the deputy fire chief for the Wood Buffalo Fire Department, Cranley Ryan, who was busy with his official duties when the tragedy occurred.

Wildfires in the spring are nothing new. They happen in the period of time between the annual snow melt and the point at which greenery has the chance to spring forth and become lush - and harder to ignite. They are often caused by lightning strikes, for which there is no reasonable prevention save for being ready for the call when the inevitable wildfire raises its all-too-often ugly head.

And yet, research suggests that the leading cause of wildfires in Canada is the human factor - people careless with their burning or their campfires. The second leading cause, at 47 percent, is thought to be natural, “Act-of’-God” stuff such as a lightning strike.

This time, according to Mike Flanagan, a professor of wildland fires at the University of Alberta, it is likely the human factor. Flanagan, in comments to The Canadian Press and published in the Huffington Post (5/5/16), notes that data from the time the fire was believed to have started on May 1, suggests there were no recorded lightning strikes in the area at the time or conditions that would cause them. The fire is also believed to have ignited close to the city of Fort McMurray, which leads Flanagan to believe it was human error.

May 1 fell on a Sunday this year. Was someone camping, only to vacate the site without ensuring the campfire was dead out? Was someone burning brush and things got out of control?

So far, no one is coming forward to claim responsibility, and the cause remains unknown. And while the focus continues to be on strategies to tame “The Beast” in order to minimize its destructive power, the search is on amidst a lower tier of importance, for the cause…

The Province of Alberta, together with Hub International Ltd (an insurance broker), has contracted with Elevated Robotic Services (ERS) in an attempt to pinpoint the cause. A series of drones will be deployed to do aerial mapping of suspected ignition points, in a forensic effort to find the origin of the massive wildfire.

For now, however, “The Beast” continues to invade, conquer and devastate. Once measured in terms of football fields in size, the Alberta wildfire is, as of May 9, three times the size of the City of Edmonton. Winds continue to fan the flames, and what little rain there’s been hasn’t helped. All firefighters can do is manage its path as best they can: attempt to steer the fire away from populated areas and try to minimize the devastation. But the fire has grown too big and too powerful for any chance of an end to the crisis through firefighting and human intervention.

No, this wildfire will either have to burn itself out, or be sufficiently reduced through a blessed change in the weather that brings reduced wind, cooler temperatures, higher humidity and a good soaking of rain of sufficient quantity for firefighters to finish it off.

At last report, the weather was beginning to change, slowing the spread of the wildfire - but not nearly enough to have any substantial impact. Thus, the fire rages on, out of control. Having moved on from Fort McMurray, which the locals know as “Fort Mac,” government officials will have their initial opportunity today to tour areas of the once-bustling oil-sands hub, now left in ruins. The provincial premier, who will be addressing media later today and briefing her constituents on what she has seen, is preparing her fellow Albertans for the worst.

Premier Rachel Notley stresses the availability of mental health services should people become overwhelmed at the reality of their loss…

Canadians have donated millions to the Red Cross, funds that are being matched by the federal and Alberta governments. Supplies, equipment and manpower continue to be deployed toward Alberta from the rest of the country in an effort to help those displaced, relieve exhausted firefighters, and give them more tools to fight a wildfire that has virtually destroyed a small city and has pushed the Province of Alberta into a state of emergency for the past several days.

At the end of all this, the millions upon millions of dollars in relief flowing toward Fort McMurray and vicinity pales against the looming job of rebuilding, and an insurance liability that will be easily measured in the billions.

It could possibly be the single biggest insurance liability in Canadian history, and in the absence of a cause, any wildfire lawsuits that may emerge would probably have a foundation in the insurance sector, should policyholders feel shortchanged by insurers trying to cut their losses.

It would not be beyond the realm of possibility that the province of Alberta could see itself at the receiving end of a lawsuit, either from insurers withering under a ferry load of claims, or from disgruntled homeowners having lost everything and feeling shortchanged in their efforts to rebuild. To that end, a wildfire that devastated the Town of Slave Lake in 2011 was the largest wildfire to that time. Fire barriers designed to protect the town were no match for 60 mph winds, which fanned the flames that would eventually destroy a third of the town.

Did fire officials learn anything from the Slave Lake wildfire? Were changes to process and protocol sufficient? Had more prevention been enacted, might the Fort McMurray wildfire have been cut down and extinguished sooner?

Only time will tell. For now, the Alberta wildfire is many times the size of Slave Lake in terms of size, destruction and devastation. The Slave Lake wildfire burned for three days, while this one is into day nine with no end in sight. For the time being, the emphasis is on trying to minimize the spread of the fire, and ensure that residents in its path are evacuated, have a place to go and remain safe.

Canadians across the country have been doing all they can to help. Most know Canadians as a polite and generous lot. The citizens of Alberta have banded together to get through this crisis.

Once the crisis has passed and the fire extinguished, the hard part of rebuilding will begin. It is hoped there will be sufficient help from insurance, government and other sources to return displaced Albertans to the lives they once knew.

It remains an interesting observation, however, that an insurance hub has contracted to help pinpoint the cause. Payouts, losses and liability that will come into play when all this is over, is likely first and foremost on their minds…


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