2016 Fort McMurray wildfire

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2016 Fort McMurray wildfire
Horse River Fire[1][2]
Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray (cropped).jpg
Fort McMurray residents evacuating along Highway 63 as the fire encroaches on the area
Location Wood Buffalo, Alberta
Northern Saskatchewan
Coordinates 56°42′N 111°23′W / 56.700°N 111.383°W / 56.700; -111.383Coordinates: 56°42′N 111°23′W / 56.700°N 111.383°W / 56.700; -111.383
Cost $9.9 billion (direct and indirect costs)[3][4][5]

Wildfire: May 1, 2016 – August 2, 2017[6]

Evacuation: May 3 – June 1, 2016
Provincial state of emergency: May 4 – July 1, 2016[7][8]
Burned area 589,552 hectares (1,456,810 acres)[9]
Land use Boreal forest, Residential, Oil Sands
Fatalities 0 (direct)[12]
2 (indirect)[13]
Non-fatal injuries 0[12]
2016 Fort McMurray wildfire is located in Alberta
2016 Fort McMurray wildfire
Location in Alberta
The wildfire burning near Fort McMurray on May 1, 2016

On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. On May 3, it swept through the community, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta's history, with upwards of 88,000 people forced from their homes.[12] Firefighters were assisted by personnel from the Canadian Forces, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, other Canadian provincial agencies, and South Africa to fight the wildfire. Aid for evacuees was provided by various governments and via donations through the Canadian Red Cross and other local and national charitable organizations.

Sweeping through Fort McMurray, the wildfire destroyed approximately 2,400 homes and buildings. Another 2,000 residents in three communities were displaced after their homes were declared unsafe for reoccupation due to contamination. The fire continued to spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan,[14] consuming forested areas and impacting Athabasca oil sands operations. With an estimated damage cost of C$9.9 billion, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016. It continued to smoulder, and was fully extinguished on August 2, 2017. It is suspected to be caused by humans in a remote area 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from Fort McMurray, but no official cause has been determined to date.

Fire progression[edit]

Cause and contributing factors[edit]

Aerial view

The fire was first spotted by forestry crew in a remote area 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from Fort McMurray on May 1, 2016.[15] An official cause of the fire has not been determined to date, but it was suspected to be human caused.[16] During the start of the fire, an unusually hot, dry air mass was in place over Northern Alberta, which brought record-setting temperatures to Fort McMurray. On May 3, the temperature climbed to 32.8 °C (91 °F),[17] accompanied by relative humidity as low as 12%.[18] The situation intensified on May 4 when temperatures reached 31.9 °C (89 °F)[17] and winds gusted to 72 km/h (45 mph).[19] A natural El Niño cycle also led to a dry fall and winter season along with a warm spring, leaving a paltry snowpack, which melted quickly. Combined with the high temperatures, this created a "perfect storm" of conditions for an explosive wildfire, and significantly contributed to the fire's rapid growth.[20][21][22][23]

Climate change was also cited as a potential contibutor to the start and spread of the fire. Some argued that this suggestion was "insensitive" to discuss during the crisis, while others have argued that the crisis made it "more important" to talk about a correlation between human-influenced climate change and wildfires.[24] Canada's politicians and scientists both cautioned that individual fires cannot specifically be linked to climate change, but agree that it is part of a general trend of more intense wildfires.[25]

Spread to Fort McMurray[edit]

As the fire spread towards settlements in Fort McMurray, a local state of emergency was declared on May 1 at 9:57 p.m. MDT (03:57 UTC May 2) with the Centennial Trailer Park and the neighbourhoods of Prairie Creek and Gregoire under a mandatory evacuation.[26][27] The evacuation orders for the two neighbourhoods were reduced to a voluntary stay-in-place order by the night of May 2 as the fire moved southwest and away from the area.[28][29] The mandatory evacuation order was reinstated and expanded to 12 neighbourhoods on May 3 at 5:00 p.m. (23:00 UTC),[30] and to the entirety of Fort McMurray by 6:49 p.m. (00:49 UTC May 4).[23] A further order covering the nearby communities of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates, and Fort McMurray First Nation was issued at 9:50 p.m. on May 4 (03:50 UTC May 5).[31] It has been reported that 88,000 people were successfully evacuated, with no reported fatalities or injuries,[12] but two people, Aaron Hodgson and Emily Ryan, were killed in a vehicular collision during the evacuation, one of whom was the daughter of a firefighter.[32][33] Despite the mandatory evacuation order, staff at the water treatment plant remained in Fort McMurray to provide firefighters with water.[34]

On May 4, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reported the communities of Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways had suffered "serious loss".[35] The Government of Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency, and said 1,600 buildings had been destroyed by the fires.[7] It was estimated that 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land had been burned.[15] Evacuees who travelled north of Fort McMurray were advised to stay where they were, and not to come south on Highway 63 as the fire was still burning out of control.[35] A boil-water advisory was issued for the entire area just after 11 a.m. (17:00 UTC).[7] At 4:05 p.m. (22:05 UTC) the fire crossed Highway 63 at Airport Road (formerly Highway 69), south of Fort McMurray, and threatened the international airport, which had suspended commercial operations earlier in the day.[35][36] The fire also forced the re-location of the Regional Emergency Operations Centre, which was originally in the vicinity of the airport.[37] On May 4, the fire was found to be producing lightning and pyrocumulus clouds due to its heat and large size, which added to the risk of more fires.[38] The fires became large enough to create a firestorm, creating its own weather in the form of wind influxes and lightning.[39]

Satellite imagery of the burn scar left by the wildfire on May 4, 2016

The fire continued to spread south on May 5 across 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) and forcing additional evacuations in the communities of Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and the Fort McMurray First Nation. These communities had accepted over 8,000 people during the initial evacuations.[15][37][40] The Government of Alberta announced a plan to airlift approximately 8,000 of 25,000 people who had evacuated to oil sands work camps north of Fort McMurray, with assistance from a Royal Canadian Air Force Hercules aircraft, and other planes owned by energy companies operating in the oil sands.[15] 1,100 personnel, 45 helicopters, 138 pieces of heavy equipment and 22 air tankers were employed to fight the fire.[40]

On May 6, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began leading convoys to move 1,500 vehicles from oil sand work camps north of Fort McMurray, south along Highway 63 to Edmonton.[41] The fire continued to grow out of control, spreading to 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) by May 6,[41][42] and 156,000 hectares (390,000 acres) by May 7.[43] As the fire grew to the northeast, the community of Fort McKay, which hosted 5,000 evacuees from Fort McMurray, was itself put under an evacuation notice. Albertan officials anticipated that the fire would double in size, and reach the Saskatchewan border to the east.[44][45]

Remote growth, control and extinguishment[edit]

Super 8 motel destroyed by the fire

The wildfire continued to spread through remote forested areas in the following week, reaching oilsand work camps south of Fort MacKay, forcing the evacuation of 19 oil sites and camps with approximately 8,000 workers. One lodge with 665 units was destroyed.[46][47] The fire continued to grow, from 285,000 hectares (700,000 acres) on May 16 to 504,443 hectares (1,246,510 acres) on May 21 and even spread across 741 hectares (1,830 acres) in Saskatchewan.[48] While the fire moved away from Fort McMurray, two explosions and poor air quality continued to prevent residents and rebuilding crews from returning to the town.[49] By May 18, the fire had grown to 423,000 hectares (1,050,000 acres) and expanded into Saskatchewan.[50][51] By mid-June, rain and cooler temperatures helped firefighters contain the fire, and on July 4, 2016, the fire was declared under control.[9][52] The wildfire was still considered to be active over the following year, having smouldered in deeper layers of moss and dirt throughout the winter.[53][54][55]

On August 2, 2017, with no further outbreaks or detection of hot spots by thermal surveys conducted over the summer, provincial officials declared the wildfire extinguished.[6]


Aid response[edit]

BC government reply
Alberta Sheriffs were deployed to assist the response effort

The Government of Alberta declared a provincial state of emergency for Fort McMurray on May 4, 2016, and issued a formal request for assistance from the Canadian Armed Forces.[56][57] The government and the Department of National Defence signed a memorandum of understanding on May 4, detailing required assistance and use of helicopters for rescue operations.[23] Shortly after, a CC-130 Hercules departed CFB Trenton and helicopters were dispatched to the affected area.[58] Alberta also requested assistance from the Government of Ontario, and Ontario committed to sending 100 firefighters and 19 supervisory staff, coordinated through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.[23] Other provinces across the country offered support.[58] On May 5, four CL-415 water bombers from Quebec's Service aérien gouvernemental (fr) took off from the province to aid in the firefighting effort.[59] Approximately 300 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers provided security in the wildfire area.[60]

South Africa sent 301 firefighters at the request of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre at the end of May.[61] The firefighters were trained during the month of April at a boot camp, in order how to learn to use special hoses instead of the leather-padded wooden sticks known as "firebeaters" they typically use in their home country due to a lack of water.[62] Less than a week after being deployed, the South Africans went on strike over a wage dispute and were demobilized. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley vowed to address the issue and ensure that the firefighters were paid a minimum of C$11.20 per hour as required by the province's labour laws, rather than the C$15 per day allowance specified in their contract with their South African employer.[63]

The Alberta government provided an initial $1,250 per adult and $500 per dependent to cover living expenses for those who had evacuated.[64] On May 4, the provincial government committed to match donations made to the Canadian Red Cross, as well as to donate an additional $2 million as seed money;[65] the federal government pledged to match all donations to the Canadian Red Cross the next day,[15] with a deadline set to May 31. As of May 9, $54 million has been donated to the Red Cross, not including matching government contributions.[66]

On May 4, Public Safety Canada activated the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, thus providing for the charitable and humanitarian re-tasking of the diverse satellite assets of 15 space agencies.[67] Later, Edmonton's Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC), along with the City of Edmonton, the Alberta Residential Landlord Association, and Yardi Canada Ltd., announced a partnership to create a registry of rental properties for Fort McMurray evacuees.[68] The non-profit initiative would offer this service free of charge to landlords for the next six months. Some landlords had offered incentives to wildfire evacuees, including reduced security deposits, reduced rent, or free rent for a month or more.[69][70]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Fort McMurray on May 13 to survey the damage and promised ongoing aid from the federal government in the coming months.[71][72] The Governor General, David Johnston, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, met with first responders and visited the ruins of the Beacon Hill neighbourhood of Fort McMurray on June 24, 2016.[73]

Political controversy[edit]

The Alberta government was criticized for cutting $15 million from the province's wildfire suppression budget in April 2016, just prior to the outbreak of the wildfire. While Premier Rachel Notley contended that wildfires were paid by emergency funds that would not be limited to combat a wildfire, local air tanker companies argued that the cuts created a personnel issue, and would make it more difficult to keep staff on duty during the wildfire season. Cuts were also made to fire preparation budgets, which funded acitivites such as creating fire breaks, but it is not certain that those activities would have been beneficial against a wildfire powerful enough to traverse the Athabasca River.[74][75]

The federal government was criticized after international assistance from Australia, Israel, Mexico, the Palestinian Authority, Russia, Taiwan, and the United States was offered in battling the fire, and turned down by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Russia specifically offered Ilyushin Il-76 firefighting aircraft that could handle up to 42 tons of fire suppresion at one time. Trudeau said that while the offers were appreciated, they were unnecessary as firefighters from other Canadian provinces were gaining control of the situation.[74][76][77] Trudeau was also criticized on May 6, 2016 for not visiting Fort McMurray and showing support, less than a week after the fire started. Trudeau responded that "showing up in Fort McMurray, when firefighters are busy trying to contain a massive raging wildfire, is not a particularly helpful thing," and comparisons were drawn to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit to Kelowna, British Columbia the previous year. Trudeau visited Fort McMurray a week later on May 13, 2016.[74][78][79]


Structures Destroyed in Fort McMurray Neighbourhoods[10][11]
Name #
Airport 4
Abasand 1,168
Anzac 12
Beacon Hill 476
Blacksand Lodge 665
Draper 13
Gregoire 4
Lower Townsite 1
Parsons Creek 10
Prairie Creek 1
Saprae Creek 86
Thickwood 187
Timberlea 379
Waterways 238
Total 3,244

Communities and infrastructure[edit]

Initial estimates from May 4 indicated that 1,600 structures in Fort McMurray were destroyed. Firefighters worked through May 6 and 7 to hold the line and protect the downtown and remaining homes in Fort McMurray.[80] On May 9, this figure was revised to 2,400 structures, and about 85 to 90% of the community was reported undamaged.[81] Overnight on May 16–17, two explosions occurred in the Thickwood and Dickensfield neighbourhoods, damaging 10 buildings and destroying three.[11]

The town's power grid sustained damage.[80] Almost the entire Fort McMurray area was placed under a boil-water advisory during the fire, since untreated water was placed into the municipal water system to supply firefighters.[34] The boil water advisory was lifted in all areas of Fort McMurray on August 17, 2016.[82]

Statistics Canada suspended enumeration activities for the 2016 Census in the Fort McMurray area on May 5. Alternative means to collect data from its residents were to be determined at a later date.[83] Some census data was received early, and some residents sent their census data online after the evacuation. Statistics Canada was able to create an accurate 2016 census profile for Fort McMurray using this information, as well as Canada Revenue Agency income tax records, local birth and death records, and long-from census information collected by surveyors going door to door.[84]

The neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand, and Beacon Hill after being severely burned were then declared unsafe for reoccupation, due to contamination from arsenic and heavy metals.[85][86] These neighbourhoods also do not have water service due to damages to the water system.[82]

Oil sands operations[edit]

Satellite images of the fire at day (May 3, 2016) overnight (May 5, 2016), and its smoke impacts across North America.

The wildfire halted oil sands production at facilities north of Fort McMurray. Shell Canada shut down output at its Albian Sands mining operation, located approximately 70 km (43 mi) north of Fort McMurray. The company said its priority was to get employees and their families out of the region, and provide capacity at its work camp for some of the evacuees. Shell also provided its landing strip to fly employees and their families to Calgary or Edmonton and provided two teams to support firefighting efforts in the area.[87]

Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada also scaled back operations. Suncor's Millennium and North Steepbank mines were two of the largest and oldest oilsands mining operations in the Fort McMurray area, and Syncrude's Mildred Lake oilsands mine is located 35 km (22 mi) north of Fort McMurray. The companies accommodated another 2,000 evacuees each at their work camps.[87] On May 7, Syncrude shut down all site and processing operations, removing 4,800 employees from the area. On May 16, all 665 rooms at Blacksands Executive Lodge, a work camp, burned in the wildfire. Earlier that day, about 8,000 people were ordered out of 19 camps; about 6,000 remained. By May 17, the fire appeared to reach the Noralta Lodge, a few kilometres east of Blacksands.[88]

Approximately one million barrels of oil a day, equal to a quarter of Canada's oil production, was halted as a result of the fire in May 2016.[89] This continued into June at a rate of 700,000 barrels per day.[90] The lost output was estimated to cost the Albertan economy $70 million per day, and was a contributing factor to rises in global oil prices.[47] The scaled back operations, along with a refinery outage in Edmonton, caused many gas stations to run out of gas throughout Western Canada.[91] Oil companies restored production and anticipated all financial impacts would wear off by the end of the third fiscal quarter.[90]


Initial insurance payouts were estimated to total as much as C$9 billion if the entire community had to be rebuilt.[92] By July 7, 2016, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) and Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. (CatIQ) reported that insured damage was estimated to have reached $3.58 billion,[93] making the wildfire the most expensive disaster in Canadian history, surpassing the 1998 ice storms in Quebec ($1.9 billion) and the 2013 Alberta floods ($1.8 billion).[5][92] The 2011 Slave Lake Wildfire, which destroyed one-third of the town of Slave Lake, cost approximately $750 million and was the most expensive fire-related disaster in Canadian history. The larger damage estimates were a result of Fort McMurray being 10 times the size of Slave Lake.[92] A further estimate based on current damage estimated insurance payouts reaching as high as $4.7 billion.[94]

Re-entry and recovery[edit]

Aerial view

On May 18, the Alberta government provisionally announced a phased re-entry of residents into Fort McMurray between June 1 and 15, 2016, given that a set of key conditions were met:[95][96][97]

  • The wildfire no longer poses a threat and that hazardous areas can be secured;
  • Local government can be re-established; and,
  • Essential services such as emergency services, transportation, utilities and essential businesses can be re-established, as well as the infrastructure that supports these services.

Residents were allowed to re-enter Fort McMurray and surrounding communities according to a schedule broken down into residential zones.[98]

The neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand, and Beacon Hill were severely burned, and were declared unsafe for reoccupation due to contamination from arsenic and heavy metals from leftover ash. 2,000 residents in these neighbourhoods were only allowed supervised visits to their homes, and relied on workers from a not-for-profit organization made up of former or current Canadian and U.S. Armed Forces members to sift through leftover items. Between, August 31 and October 24, 2016, residents of 470 homes within the three neighbourhoods were able to move home.[85][86][10]

In the wake of the wildfire impact on Fort McMurray, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo created a wildfire recovery plan, establishing a framework and governance structure for recovery efforts. Recovery funding was estimated to be above $4.5 billion: $615 million from federal, provincial and municipal governments; $319 million from the Canadian Red Cross; and $3.58 billion from the insurance industry.[99][93] As of January 2018, 90% of wildfire claims have been processed according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.[100]

Reconstruction of impacted communities is ongoing.[100] The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo updated their Wildfire Mitigation Strategy in January 2018, which conducted a risk assessment for wildfire behaviour. It also proposed clearing 867 hectares of vegetation, various access and safety standards for planned infrastructure and land development, eductaing members of the public on wildfire threats, cooperation and joint training between the municipal and provincial departments, and updates to emergency plans.[101] The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo also rolled out policies designed to ensure homes are built with additional fireproof materials, and were not built within floodplains. However, insurance companies only provide funds to restore pre-fire conditions, and an independent review by KPMG found that it was unlikely that this would occur.[102]

See also[edit]


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