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Alberta’s Wildfire

May 8, 2016

By Paul Homewood 




It did not take Jeff Masters at Weather Underground to link the Alberta fires to climate change.


The Fort McMurray fire arrived months ahead of when summer wildfire typically races through the boreal forests of northern Alberta. A low-pressure center arcing far north of a typical early-May track brought hot southwest winds across the Fort McMurray region, which lies within the southern edge of the great boreal forests of northern Canada. Fort McMurray saw record daily highs of 91°F on Tuesday and 89°F on Wednesday. The city gets this warm on only about five days in a typical year, and those days are usually in July or August (even then, the average daily high is between 70°F and 75°F). The hot weather struck at an uncommonly bad time for wildfire risk: after winter snows had disappeared, but before the summer green-up had taken hold. Normally the window between these would be quite narrow, but snowfall was light this winter across the region, and it disappeared quickly during record warmth in April. From December through April, Fort McMurray recorded only 1.69” of precipitation, compared to the 1981-2010 average for that period of 3.22”.


Unfortunately for Masters, Bruce at Sunshine Hours has tracked down the daily temperature data for Fort McMurray from the the Canadian Government website here. Data is only available from 1908 to 1944, but, as the above table shows, temperatures of 91F in May are not unprecedented, with the 1930s and 40s particularly standing out.

The all time May high was an incredible 98.1F in May 1936. There was even a temperature of 95F recorded in April 1939.




As for rainfall, again the numbers quoted are not unprecedented. In 1943, for instance, precipitation only amounted to 37.9mm. or 1.49 inches from January to April. (Masters uses December to April numbers. which begs the question why? Was November wetter than normal? Normally meteorologists would either start in October (regarded as the start of the hydrological year), or January. This sounds suspiciously like data mining).


index|1944-12-  01&type=bar&MeasTypeID=totprecip&cmdB1=Go&Year=1943&Month=5&Day=7


As for long term temperature trends in Alberta, Banff offers a long running record. According to GISS, below, temperatures in recent years appear no higher than in the 1930s.




To understand why the fire has been so catastrophic, we only need to consult the above article in the Edmonton Journal:


In 1971, more than half of Alberta’s boreal forest was deemed to be young, with about a third immature, five per cent mature and a small portion deemed “overmature”.

By 2011, that had changed to less than 10 per cent young, about a quarter immature, more than 40 per cent mature, and more than 20 per cent overmature.

“Before major wildfire suppression programs, boreal forests historically burned on an average cycle ranging from 50 to 200 years as a result of lightning and human-caused wildfires,” the panel found in a report released in 2012.

“Wildfire suppression has significantly reduced the area burned in Alberta’s boreal forest. However, due to reduced wildfire activity, forests of Alberta are ageing, which ultimately changes ecosystems and is beginning to increase the risk of large and potentially costly catastrophic wildfires.”

The panel reported that Alberta can expect more such dire situations due to humans living closer to the forest, and the aging of the Alberta forest.

“More Albertans are choosing to live, work, and play throughout the forested regions of the province, with investment and activity in Alberta’s wildlands accelerating. Experts say that climate change is increasing the wildfire threat, some aspects of which are already measurable with longer fire seasons and more extreme weather. As a result, the risk of wildfires, and the threat they pose to lives, homes, communities, and industry is increasing.”

In May 2011, the committee reported that “189 human-caused wildfires ignited across the province and threatened over 23 communities/locations (e.g., camps, worksites, parks, wildfire lookouts). Strong, sustained winds from the southeast created wildfire suppression challenges.”

The number of human-caused fires has been rising rapidly, from slightly more than 200 per year in 1993 to more than 1,100 a year by 2011. After human activity, lightning is the next biggest cause of wildfires, responsible for 40 per cent of them.

Before the Slave Lake fire, there had been few major wildfires in Alberta that took out homes.

“The last wildfire causing widespread damage to a community was in 1919 when the Town of Lac La Biche was destroyed, and 14 people lost their lives. Since 1919, and prior to the 2011 wildfires in the Slave Lake area, the most significant losses were experienced in 2001 when a wildfire destroyed 10 homes in the hamlet of Chisholm.”

But wildfires were to be expected.

“Wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle of the boreal forest; many of the vegetation species, including trees, are well adapted to large, intense wildfires. These boreal wildfires typically burn as ‘crown fires,’ and are responsible for most of the area burned in the boreal forests of North America, Europe and Asia. Intense wildfires consume forest canopy and can spread from treetop to treetop, releasing huge quantities of sparks, smoke and other gases.”


Forestry experts are well aware that wildfire suppression, which started to become common after the war, simply increases the amount of combustible material in forests, thus making fires much more powerful.

And as Bernie Schmitte, forestry manager in Fort McMurray, explained:

“The boreal forest is a fire-dependant ecosystem. The spruce trees, pine trees, they like to burn,”

“They have to burn to regenerate themselves, and those species have adapted themselves to fire. Their cones have adapted so they open up after the fire has left, and the trees have adapted in that once they’re old and need to be replaced, they’re available to fire so they burn.”

There is a much bigger proportion of older trees now because of earlier fire suppression, and it is these that are most combustible.


Meanwhile, if we look at wildfire trends in Alberta up to 2014, we find nothing remarkable at all.




And it is a similar picture for Canada as a whole:




Of course, the Fort McMurray fire is big news simply because so many people now live there, as a result of the oil sands revolution there. Only a few years ago, the place was no more than a small village.


Masters finishes his highly misleading account by saying:

In their deadline coverage of the Fort McMurray event, journalists such as Andrew Freedman (Mashable) have done a laudable job pointing out the complex but real connections between climate change and wildfire. We have much more to learn about exactly why and how the atmosphere is moving in directions that favor devastating fire–but for now, perhaps it’s enough simply to know that the dice are being loaded. Together with the many other threats posed by climate change, this should be more than enough motivation to get serious about emission cuts. The vast and profound effects of human-produced greenhouse gases–from intensified downpours and drought impacts to ocean acidification and sea-level rise–call for a sustained commitment to change that transcends any single disaster, even one as compelling as the nightmare unfolding in Fort McMurray.



This is one more reminder that you can’t rely on Weather Underground for the truth.

  1. martinbrumby permalink
    May 8, 2016 5:01 pm

    More nonsense from Masters (and all his myriad chums).

    Now let the Masters baiters commence!

  2. May 8, 2016 7:07 pm

    Excellent review. Scientific American has also tried to make this false linkage. For a fact, SciAm is no longer either Scientific nor American.

    • May 12, 2016 11:11 pm

      Sci Am has been hijacked by propagandists and is no longer really credible. They censor comments on their page if you don’t fall in to step with the CAGW agenda.

  3. daddyjames permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:03 pm

    Disappointing how you do not address the main point of the blog post by Dr. Masters regarding snow cover in the Spring having shown a long term trend of declining. Care to show any data regarding that.
    All the other points you make simply confirm what Dr. Master’s reported – as the data presented stated that temperatures have been unusually warm, but not necessarily unprecedented.
    Of course, fire suppression has led to undesirable consequences in the intensities of fires – and development in regions prone to fires contribute to people being directly afffected. On this, we do not disagree.

  4. Broadlands permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:33 pm

    A high percentage of wildfires are caused by humans, either accidentally or, sadly, deliberately. This makes sense because as the population grows more people visit the forests…to get away from the urban heat they cause at home.

  5. clipe permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:49 pm

    “…That being said some far less socially aware people have decided that a human disaster is exactly the right time to push their political agendas. The most obvious case being a post at Slate written by Mr. Eric Holthaus titles: Wildfire Rips Through Canadian City, Forcing 80,000 to Flee. This Is Climate Change which I have seen re-tweeted more times than I can count.”

  6. Wellers permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:54 pm

    I have just seen a report on the BBC World news bulletin and they asked an American professor of Ecology about the reasons for the Albertan wildfires. He duely replied that the causes were climate change and an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere (no logic provided for the second attribution). Right on cue and no attempt to challenge him to provide proof for his assertion.

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      May 9, 2016 12:08 am

      These causes seem not to explain this fire:


      It was the “biggest firestorm documented in North America—3,500,000 acres of forest burned in northern Alberta and British Columbia

  7. daddyjames permalink
    May 8, 2016 8:56 pm

    It seems as if comments are screened before being posted? What are you afraid of?

    • May 8, 2016 9:41 pm

      You are a new commenter. It is standard wordpress setting to screen first time commenters for obvious reasons

    • Climate Otter permalink
      May 9, 2016 9:16 am

      Keep commenting! We want to hear what you have to say.

  8. ron permalink
    May 8, 2016 9:25 pm

    In British Columbia, there is a mountain pine beetle infestation. Two factors operate to reduce the spread of the beetle.

    One factor is the cold winters that prevail in the mountains which kills the beetles. Being close to the Pacific coast means that normal fluctuations in weather can sometimes produce successive years of less than the required bitter cold that can permeate the tree bark and kill them. The longer a tree is infested the colder it has to get to finish them off.

    After a few years of failure to kill the beetle, the affected regions of trees die and dry out. That is when phase two kicks in. A dead, dry forest is a fire waiting to happen. A burning tree is a hostile environment for beetles. It kills them dead.

    An ongoing forest fire in this part of the world is an invitation for the government to mobilize all the resources it can to stop the spread of the fires. In so doing they are protecting the pine beetle form eradication by natural means.

    When I speak of forests, I mean big. As in bigger than a lot of countries. I have no doubt that preventing the natural cycle of burning off of the dried, desiccated ravages of the beetle also prevents the normal replacement of new flourishing growth. The new growth that normally replaces it, or its absence, has an effect on regional weather patterns (no,no,no, not climate, just regional)

    Needless to say, all effects of the pine beetle infestation, forest fire management etc are portrayed as evidence of climate change by the media, academics etc, around here. Stating what seems pretty obvious to me is setting yourself up for ridicule. You can point out that it has nothing to do with so called climate change as long as you keep it to yourself but woe betide anyone who looks like they may actually be convincing anyone that:

    a: the mountain pine beetle is called that because it lives in pine forests in the mountains and is not a climate change generated invasive species as Al Gore and other highly regarded _authorities_ claim.

    b: There have been pine beetles here as long there have been pine trees.

    c: There have been forest fires here for as long as there have been forests.

    d: That whereas we used to allow forest fires to burn out, now we don’t and this has consequences for the forest.

    I am old enough to remember when the forests were largely uninhabited and workers were pulled out of them during the fire season. In my lifetime I have seen a million people and billions of dollars worth of industry move into what was once regarded as a no go zone.

    Not only is development allowed in these areas but policy actually requires keeping the forest in as close a contact as possible with communities. Policy requires keeping mature old growth forests which have been awarded a spiritual significance that precludes rational discussion about managing the risk they impose. Not only are houses and connecting roads built right in the middle of the trees but it is regarded as an accomplishment to do so. Factories, power plants, hospitals, everything is/has to be surrounded by as much old growth as possible.

    Needless to say the economic and social damage from forest fires now is always counted as record this, and record that. And of course it is…record stupidity, if anyone thought anything else was going to happen.

    • Dorian permalink
      May 9, 2016 6:18 am

      Absolutely right ron!

      I lived in BC before coming to Italy, and I learnt that the policy in Western Canada is to put out fires as they start. They used to do this in Australia for many years until they had the devastating fire around Melbourne, which burnt to the ground thousands of homes.

      Now the Australians know better. Eucalyptus trees need to burn once and a while. If they don’t burn, the build up in dry brush turns bush areas into a future apocalypse. The same applies in Canada.

      The problem in Canada is the pine forests NEED to burn every once and awhile. Building townships and cities right up to the tree line is stupid, if not reckless endangerment. You need to do control burning regularly. What you are seeing in Alberta now, is a result of RECKLESS green policies. It has nothing to do with global warming, but everything to do with stupidity by the Greens and Leftist policies.

      If you think what Alberta is going through is horrible, take a look at another apocalypse waiting to happen. North Vancouver forests have incredible amounts of ground material and in the summer it is just waiting to explode into a monstrous fire. If that happens, ALL OF NORTH VANCOUVER and WEST VANCOUVER COULD GO UP IN FLAMES.

      I lived in North Vancouver, and loved going into the forest. But it is scary to see the potential for fire. Homes go right up to the tree line, one day it will all go up in flames. The city officials and government allowed to much development to happen on the North Shore.

      This disaster in Alberta has nothing to do with global warming, but everything to do with people’s stupidity and greed.

      Once again we have an illustration of Social Entropy, and how people can’t accept the responsibility for their own actions.

      What the Alberta fires is really about is Mother Nature correcting the idiocy of Man.

      • Rowland Pantling permalink
        May 9, 2016 10:47 am

        Ditto all this for Australia.

    • May 9, 2016 11:38 am

      The plants of the Mediterranean sclerophyll forests found in Australia, California (chaparral) , and of course the Mediterranean, have coriaceous leaves containing a number of resins. Conifers also have resins in their needles and wood. It makes them resistant to dessication, but also makes them susceptible to fire. It is no surprise that both types of vegetation are helped by fire. As pointed out, fire is necessary with many pine and spruce species for the cones open and release seeds. With the “chaparral” formation, fire clears out other competing species and there is a quick re-sprouting from root system.

  9. Ben Vorlich permalink
    May 9, 2016 7:25 am

    When the forest fires came sweeping into Peshtigo in 1871, there was no advance warning. Winds may have been over a hundred miles an hour. The heat melted things that demonstrate the fire’s temperature was over 2000° F. The flames were over 200 feet tall.


    Fort McMurray Fire Vs Great Peshtigo Fire, 1871

  10. May 9, 2016 7:52 am

    Just now 8:20am R4Today prog Dr Iain Hartley of Exeter Universityspoke of the Canadian fire and it’s effect on frozen organic matter.

    … concerned about a pattern of INCREASING fires over the last 50 years
    ..’These areas absorb CO2, but they could start to go the other way potentially’ ……..(Yeh maybe)

    ( producer sighs ticked R4TodayProg has met its quote of global warming scare stories, so won’t be getting another phonecall from Angry Harrabin )

    • May 9, 2016 1:50 pm

      R4 didn’t do us the courtesy of telling us that the fire has stopped growing (since Saturday night)
      ..They wouldn’t want to spoil there catastrophe narrative.

  11. May 9, 2016 8:17 am

    Masters says “the dice are being loaded”. This is plagiarism of the infamous James Hansen quote “The climate dice are now loaded”. Which is correct? Either the dice are now loaded or they are being loaded. Both cannot be correct.

    • roger permalink
      May 9, 2016 9:30 am

      Seems simple to me. Hansen over the years has been loaded with Gov’t money whilst in Masters case the process is not yet complete.

  12. A C Osborn permalink
    May 9, 2016 9:29 am

    I think you will also find that not only did they ignore a very damning report telling them that they were in trouble but also cut the numbers working for the Fire Dept as well.

  13. May 9, 2016 11:26 am

    The movement by environmentalists to freeze forests in time as “perfect” is the same as freezing some arbitrary “climate” in time. When it all blows or burns up, they look for someone else to blame. The supression of fire is just one example of their attempts to stop natural change. They also do not want sale of timber from public lands. Then they wring their hands when there is little/no wildlife as it needs edge and young growth areas.

    • Dorian permalink
      May 9, 2016 5:34 pm

      You nailed it on the head, botanyjrg, when you say, “they look for someone else to blame.” What we need is to start putting back laws that hold people to account for their actions, and even laws they introduce.

      Society has thrown away the cudgels of responsibility. Politicians, civil leaders, bosses, teachers, professors, and any position of responsibility has immunity from responsibility.

      Worse yet are judges!

      When the Alberta fires are over, who is going to charge the Government for wanton recklessness, by allowing homes to be built right up to a forest line where every chance of a forest fire could wipe out thousands of homes? Answer: nobody. But everybody will be pointing their fingers to the most convenient party to place guilt and that is The System. Not any person, but The System. Thus we must change The System, that is, more stupid global warming laws and want not.

      Never mind The System was created by crooked people. And so, the morons and crooks stay in their jobs, keep raking in their loot and booty, and Society will continue on decaying.

      And the rest of us, pay the real price… poverty, chaos, and ultimately ….war.

  14. May 9, 2016 6:29 pm

    Crying “Climate change” allows governments to practice massive levels of incompetence and pass the buck. This is in addition to massive taxation opportunities and wasteful investments. The UK flooding was blamed on “Climate change” and no one held accountable.

  15. John Macdonell permalink
    May 10, 2016 2:26 am

    Quote from the Edmonton Journal article in above article:

    “Experts say that climate change is increasing the wildfire threat, some aspects of which are already measurable with longer fire seasons and more extreme weather. As a result, the risk of wildfires, and the threat they pose to lives, homes, communities, and industry is increasing.”

    – The proper way to view it. Climate change doesn’t directly cause the fire. It sets the stage. Along with aging forests, increased human proximity, etc., You can expect more of these now and in the future.

    They are costly. Moral: prepare accordingly.

    • May 10, 2016 11:01 am

      I could not agree more, John.

      If we are going to build towns in the middle of combustible forests, we need to prepare accordingly. Of course, “experts say” is just more of the unfounded alarmist nonsense we are fed with daily.

      • May 10, 2016 12:58 pm

        I would like to see “experts” identified and their credentials enumerated. Personally, I’m tired of hearing about “experts” w/o names or experience identified.

  16. duker permalink
    May 11, 2016 9:52 pm

    Even the reports of the city devastated are false. Most of the city is still standing, with a few suburbs having either a few blocks burnt out or others with a group of houses.

    The layout of the suburbs is extremely irregular with some parts along the main highways and others forming part enclaves mostly surrounded by forest.

    This Google map overlay with recent satellite views by date shows the detail of what exactly has been burnt. Note the areas in red that are shown as affected when you zoom in the numbers of houses burnt is even lower

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