Published on November 1, 2017.

Beast Mode: The Fort McMurray Fire

The largest-loss 2016 fire by far in North America was a Canadian wildfire that resulted in property losses of more than $3 billion

BY STEPHEN G. BADGET

NFPA’s annual study on large-loss fires focuses on events in the United States, but the most severe incident by far in North America last year occurred in Western Canada, in the province of Alberta. For two months, an enormous wildfire called the Fort McMurray Fire—also known as the Horse River Fire, and nicknamed “the Beast” by locals—burned wildlands, homes, businesses, and properties, and threatened tens of thousands of residents. By the time the fire was controlled, it had become one of the largest fires in recent Canadian history, with a property loss of $3.9 billion Canadian ($3.2 billion U.S.).

Fort McMurray, a community of about 62,000 located at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers in northeastern Alberta, is situated amid the Athabasca oilsands and has become a key part of Canada’s petroleum production industry. It is also country that is prone to wildfires. Alberta has a history of large, destructive wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires in the recent past, with significant fire events occurring in 1998, 2001, and 2011, and conditions around Fort McMurray suggested the possibility of more large fires in the area in 2016. The previous year, 2015, had been extremely dry; there had been a low snow pack over the winter, with rapid snow melt in early spring and an early onset of hot, dry, windy conditions. There had been no recent rain.

On May 1, a helicopter patrolling for wildfires spotted a new fire covering approximately four acres (two hectares) in boreal forest, located approximately four miles (seven kilometers) from Fort McMurray. Air tankers arrived within 30 minutes and ground crews responded. The following day, though, the fire had escaped initial control efforts, and a change in wind direction had helped it balloon to more than 6,400 acres (2,600 hectares). On the third day, the wind pushed the fire into the urban area of Fort McMurray, and a mandatory evacuation order was issued for nearly 88,000 people. Over the next two months, the fire would burn into communities and approach oilsands operation work camps, threatening the region’s oil production. At the fire’s height on June 3, there were 2,197 personnel working the fire, along with 77 helicopters, nine air tanker groups, and 269 pieces of heavy equipment. The fire was declared under control on July 4.

Property losses associated with the Fort McMurray Fire were among the highest ever recorded for a wildfire event—by comparison, the largest-loss wildfire in U.S. history, the 1991 Oakland Fire Storm, resulted in estimated losses of $2.6 billion, in 2016 dollars. In addition to direct losses, the Fort McMurray Fire resulted in an estimated economic impact loss of nearly $10 billion Canadian ($8.1 billion U.S.). A total of 2,276 square miles, or more than 1.4 million acres (589,552 hectares) of land were destroyed. An estimated 2,400 buildings were destroyed, including nearly 2,000 residential properties. More than 3,000 structures were listed as unsafe to enter (some for environmental reasons) or total losses. There were no deaths directly attributed to the fire, but two people were killed in a vehicle crash while residents attempted to escape.

STEPHEN G. BADGER is a fire data assistant in NFPA’s Applied Research Group and a retired firefighter from the Quincy, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Top Photograph: Getty Images