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Rain helps firefighting effort north of Fort McMurray


Dropping water on a fire near Fort McMurray
Dropping water on a fire near Fort McMurray

Alexandra Pope, staff writer

June 18, 2011 — Firefighters working to contain a massive wildfire in the Richardson backcountry north of Fort McMurray are finally getting a little help from the weather.

Smoke from the Richardson backcountry fire hangs in the air over Fort McMurray
Smoke from the Richardson backcountry fire hangs in the air over Fort McMurray

The southern edge of the fire recently saw some of its first rainfall in weeks, and crews are hoping for more over the weekend.

However, at almost 600,000 hectares -- roughly the size of Prince Edward Island -- the fire is so large, crews are seeing rain over some parts of the fire area, but not others.

Fortunately, the rain is falling in the right part, said Rob Harris, a provincial wildfire information officer with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.

“Our focus right now is the south end of the fire, because just south of that is the community of Fort McKay as well as some industrial facilities related to the oilfield,” he said. “So the rain in the south is good, but we would like to see it get to the northern portion of the fire where we haven't seen any kind of moisture up to this point and where the fire danger is extreme.”

The fire, which has become Alberta's third-largest since the early 1900s, is mostly burning through uninhabited boreal forest. So, firefighters working at the northern edge of the fire are using a different tactic: setting deliberate fires ahead of the leading edge of the main fire to minimize the amount of fuel available.

Rainfall forecast
Rainfall forecast

“We're actually fighting fire with fire,” said Harris.

Boreal forest is a fire-dependent ecosystem, meaning some species of trees, such as lodgepole pine, actually need the extreme heat of a fire in order to regenerate.

“We're drawing lines in the sand,” Harris explained. “We're seeing where we're willing to let this fire grow to get those positive benefits before we move into full suppression.”

A stationary low fixed over the central Prairies has been bringing heavy rain to parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Several communities in Saskatchewan even declared states of emergency due to flooding.

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