Right now, a wildfire is tearing its way across the Canadian province of Alberta. It’s currently about 850 square kilometers (about 328 square miles) in size, which is roughly the size of Rome. Although it has recently begun to slow down, the conflagration is currently surrounding the city of Fort McMurray, and firefighters are desperate to kill it before it advances any further.
The entire population of 88,000 people was evactuated a few days ago, with some fleeing south while others headed north. Around 8,000 people have been airlifted from just north of the severely damaged city, but 17,000 remain, and they are genuinely at risk of being completely trapped by the fire. Authorities hope that the only motorway capable of evacuating these residents will be safe enough by the end of Friday this week.
“Let me be clear: air tankers are not going to stop this fire,” said Chad Morrison, Alberta’s manager of wildfire prevention, as reported by the Guardian. “It is going to continue to push through these dry conditions until we actually get some significant rain.”
— Judy Trinh (@JudyTrinhCBC) May 5, 2016
Naturally, people are beginning to wonder what caused such an unusually powerful, prolonged wildfire. Was this disaster, which has caused the largest fire evacuation in the province’s history, a one-off, or is it a sign of worse things to come?
Several climate change experts have concluded that this was in fact the result of a “perfect storm,” a dangerous union between the most powerful El Niño on record and man-made climate change. Although tinder-dry plants, very low humidity and hot, strong winds have rendered the 1,100 firefighters unable to halt the fire, its ultimate cause appears to down to these two familiar antagonists.
Man-made climate change has indubitably made wildfires both more common and more powerful: Since 1979, wildfire seasons have lengthened by nearly 19 percent. The global frequency of long fire weather seasons has also jumped by a whopping 53.4 percent, and the amount of burnable land affected has risen by over 108 percent.
Alberta itself has had 330 wildfires since the beginning of the year, which is more than double the recent annual average. As a marker of just how unusually hot it is right now, Fort McMurray recorded a temperature of 32.6°C (90.7°F), way above the expected high temperature of 14°C (57.2°F) for early May.
— Simon Donner (@simondonner) May 4, 2016
Although warmer winters are certainly down to climate change, the current record-setting El Niño has only served to exacerbate things. Thanks to the complex machinations of this climatic event, western Canada experienced a serious drought, so severe in fact that the province declared an agricultural emergency. This dryness has continued long into the beginning of spring.
“We've had an incredibly dry winter, we didn't have enough snow pack,” Professor Judith Kulig, from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, told BBC News. The drought, the lack of snow, the extremely high temperatures and the current lack of precipitation have all made for a rather grim tale that is not yet over.
Hopefully, the story ends with the residents of Fort McMurray being safely evacuated, but the danger is currently far from over. At the moment, out of the 49 separate wildfires in the area, seven are still listed as “out of control.” The scale of the fire can be tracked in real-time here.
Ultimately, the take-home message is this: Climate change is making extreme weather events – including wildfires – more likely, and these will be at their worst during El Niño years.