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What needs to happen to the weather to help Fort McMurray?

A Q&A with a scientist who specializes in forest fires, on what needs to happen for the Fort McMurray fires to go out


 
Smoke rises above trees as a wildfire burns in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. The wildfire has already torched 1,600 structures in the evacuated oil hub of Fort McMurray and is poised to renew its attack in another day of scorching heat and strong winds. (Jason Franson/CP)

Smoke rises above trees as a wildfire burns in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. The wildfire has already torched 1,600 structures in the evacuated oil hub of Fort McMurray and is poised to renew its attack in another day of scorching heat and strong winds. (Jason Franson/CP)

As hundreds of firefighters battle in and around Fort McMurray, everyone is carefully monitoring the weather in the hopes that Mother Nature will come to the rescue. Right now, there’s no way for firefighters to put out the fire unless the weather shifts. Dr. Kerry Anderson, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, specializes in research on forest fires. He explains how the weather could help, or hurt, fire fighting efforts.

Q: What needs to change in the weather for the fire to go out?

A: We need the temperatures to fall, we need the humidity to go up and we need the winds to calm down.

Q: How much does the temperature need to drop? How cold does it need to get?

A: Generally speaking extreme fire behaviour happens when the temperature in Celsius exceeds the percentage of relative humidity. [The temperature in Fort McMurray is currently at 17 degrees celsius, and the humidity is at 22 per cent; on Wednesday, when the fire grew substantially, the temperature hit 31.7 degrees and the humidity reached a low of 13 per cent.] That’s usually a red flag for extreme fire behaviour. So if humidity increases and the temperature is cool—like in the 20s, while the humidity is in the 40s—that will probably settle things down. Also if clouds come overhead, that tends to settle down fire behaviour as well.

Q: If there’s rain, or just the clouds by themselves?

A: I have not talked about rain. Obviously rain is an important factor here. If it rains that would have a great impact on the potential fire behaviour, but it takes a lot more than just a little sprinkling to put these fires out. A fire such as this Fort MacMurray fire is going to need 50 mm or 100 mm of rain to put it out, so that’s really not in the forecast, not for the next few weeks.

Q: Is there a temperature drop forecasted?

A: With this cold front that came through last night the temperatures in Alberta have dropped quite dramatically, we’re perhaps five or more degrees cooler than we were yesterday and along with this cooler temperature the humidity went up so we are getting a bit of a break in terms of the potential fire behaviour. But the indication is that’s going to be short-lived and things are probably going to ramp up again early next week.

Q: Is there any way to induce that? Is there any way for humans to encourage those things to take place? For instance, cloud seeding?

A: No, there has been weather modification done in the past but a lot of that stuff is on shaky ground. That was work that was done in the ’70s and ’80s. [Cloud seeding] is not a science that’s really being pursued aggressively these days.

FMFAQ


 

What needs to happen to the weather to help Fort McMurray?

  1. Very sorry to argue with a fire expert, but cloud seeding is not some fringe science, despite many people thinking it’s some conspiracy-nut fantasy. It’s being used now and has been used since the 50’s. California just used it weeks ago to increase rain fall, China used it to clear the weather for the Olympics, and the military, farmers in the mid-west, and ski resorts use it all the time. http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-l-a-officials-seeded-clouds-during-el-nino-storm-in-hopes-of-more-rain-20160308-story.html

    There is rain coming, cloud seeding can increase the amount of rain fall from it. I’m shocked Canadian fire experts aren’t seriously pursuing this. MacLeans needs to let the public know cloud seeding is a real option that should be tried. It is real. It works in many cases and is absolutely worth a try to control this tragedy. There needs to be public pressure to get them to stop ignorantly dismissing this as an option. Sitting around and hoping it rains enough soon enough is not going to accomplish anything. Read the science, talk to the US and China. There isn’t time to sit and argue whether it might work, the clouds are coming now and might not come again soon enough to save the region!

    • Samantha, it’s understandable that one would grasp at anything that might increase rainfall to prevent events such as the wildfires that are occurring in Northern Alberta this spring. Cloud seeding superficially does sound like a great solution. However, a deeper look into the science and effectiveness of cloud seeding paints a different picture. Although there has been years of research on this technique, and many examples of it having been tried, the results are far from convincing or particularly effective. The necessary conditions for any success are narrow and unpredictable. There are potential health hazards from some of the methods, and a cost/benefit analysis is not usually favourable. A Google search produces many articles on the topic of cloud seeding.

      Although your wish to solve the problem extreme dryness and high fire risk after the Fort McMurray fire is understandable, you may want to do a bit more research before placing your hopes on cloud seeding as either helpful or a solution.

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