Friday, May 6, 2016

Convoys Through the Fire Zone

When the fire at Fort McMurray forced the evacuation of the city, the fire itself was smaller than the city. In another day the fire was much larger and covered an area the size of Chicago in one meteorologist’s estimate. There were few evacuation options, and at least one fourth of the people who evacuated went north on a highway that connects to the outside world only by going back through the city. The fire is now hot enough that it can be put out only by heavy rain. With no rain in the ten-day forecast, it wouldn’t be safe to leave so many people nearby with no road out. The only option is for them to drive back through the fire zone, picking a time when winds are lighter and the trip is relatively safe. Authorities did not like the wind gusts yesterday afternoon. This morning shortly after sunrise the first cars started back toward the fire.

The police plan to escort 1,500 cars out today. That would be a convoy 20 kilometers long, so they will be moving 50 cars at a time. It sounds like it could easily take all day.

The evacuation will have air support which may be able to dampen the embers at key points or can warn a convoy to pause or turn back if a hot spot forms ahead. Nevertheless, drivers will see active flames as they pass through the fire zone. It sounds scary but is ultimately safer than staying put.

The fire will continue to expand, forecasters say, but as it extends to the east it is headed toward an almost unoccupied area near the provincial border with Saskatchewan. Firefighters have so far managed to protect the highway, cell towers, airport, and downtown and can continue to focus on priorities within the city itself.

You might hope that such a large fire event with such a large human impact would be a big story in itself, but the Fort McMurray fire broke through only after the impact on the outside world could be highlighted. Evacuees arrived in Edmonton and Calgary, two of the nearest major cities. World oil prices went up 1 percent after oil production was curtailed, then suspended, in areas near the fire. Another fire farther west closed the Alaska Highway, the long highway connecting Alberta and British Columbia to Yukon and Alaska. All these angles helped make the ongoing fire more than a local story.