In Day 1 of a five-part series, David Staples looks at how Alberta firefighters took on Fire 9 and saved Fort McMurray.
Fort McMurray — The plume of smoke rose high across the Clearwater River, a wisp of white in the blue sky over the crisp boreal forest.
But what was it? Dust kicked up from a gravel road? A campfire? Or another wildfire?
The Alberta Forestry helicopter, a 212 Bell Twin Huey with a crew of eight wildfire fighters, was just finished an hour-long patrol for signs of wildfire. The Bell 212 cruised at 185 kilometres per hourover valleys, muskeg and vast hectares of aspen poplar and black spruce forest. Pilot Dave Mulock followed the Clearwater river valley south to refuel at the Fort McMurray airport.
Helitack wildfire crew leader Sebastien Rioux spotted the wisp far to the west, past the winding Clearwater, and also past the great length of the city. Fort McMurray stretched north-to-south 15 kilometres along Highway 63 through the parched forest, its largest neighbourhoods situated on the hills at the confluence of two rivers, the Athabasca and its tributary, the Clearwater.
A large cloud of orange smoke drifts over Fort McMurray as seen from Hospital Drive. A wildfire west of the city is one of two that expanded rapidly in and around the city on May 1, 2016.
Rioux and his team agreed the smoke looked like a wildfire, but a small one, still putting out white smoke, not the grey or black smoke from a full-on crown fire. Likely just a grass fire. At 4:03 p.m. on May 1, 2016, Rioux alerted the Alberta Forestry wildfire control centre on the fifth floor of provincial building in downtown valley flats.
Mulock told Rioux the Bell 212 still had enough fuel to harvest and drop a few buckets of water on the fire. Rioux decided to tackle the wildfire at once.
Two wildfires had sparked to life near the city in the previous two days, but firefighters had promptly handled both.
Those fires were crushed, thought Scott Jennings, one of the wildfire fighters.Now it was his crew's turn to crush this one.
The Bell 212 arrived at the plume to see the fire burning in the dry grass along a cutline for a high power transmission line, a favourite spot for back country vehicles.
At 4:06, Rioux called in confirmation of the wildfire. At the forestry control room, the fire was designated as MWF-009, Fire 9, the ninth wildfire of the season in the Fort McMurray region.
The Bell 212 circled Fire 9 so Rioux and his team could assess it. Rioux jotted down the fire's GPS coordinates, the type of vegetation burning, its size and rate of spread. Jennings and the other firefighters scanned the area for a water source for their hoses and a safe place for the chopper to land.
The group was confident of success, but even as the chopper circled, the fire grew fast. By the time the Bell 212 had landed in a clear area about 100 metres away, the blaze bit hard into the forest itself.
Aspen poplar forest surrounds Fort McMurray, which made some think a wildfire would never take off there. "The Asbestos Forest," they called it, because aspen is asbestos-like in that it's not known to burn easily. But at that moment the dry wind blew briskly and the sun burned hot, 25 C — summer weather come a month early after a winter with little snow and a spring with no rain.
On the ground, the attack team charged into action. Two firefighters cleared and widened the initial landing spot, two took hose to a nearby creek, two chainsawed a second helipad in the now smoking, charred grass of the cutline, and two chased the fire with hoses through the forest.
Scott Jennings went to work with a chainsaw. Ten years earlier, he had followed his twin brother Kent from Williams Lake in the B.C. Interior to Alberta to study at the University of Alberta and to fight fires in the summer. Jennings found wildfire work to be hard but exciting and satisfying.
This new blaze was already proving to be difficult.
Its rapid spread astonished Jennings. Often in the past when Jennings observed a small grass fire hit an aspen poplar forest, the fire had failed to spread, unable to ignite the green leaves and wet forest floor. But the aspen along the power line were parched and thirsty. Their roots still frozen, they weren't yet taking up groundwater. Any moisture in the trunks and branches had been used up trying to push out leaf buds, but the leaves were yet to grow.
Scott Jennings, Alberta Forestry wildfire strike team leader
Without the shade from those leaves, the sun sucked the forest floor dry. The forest here was also full of slash, an undergrowth of coniferous black spruce, which didn't need direct sunlight to grow but did need fire to regenerate. The spruce was ready to burn and to renew, the heat of wildfire opening up cones so that new seed could spread.
The heli-attack team planned to first carve out an anchor, a safe base in the charred wake of the wildfire, then attack the fire's flanks with hoses, axes and saws, and try to pinch it off at its head.
The goal, as always, was to have the fire out by 10 a.m. the day after it ignited. But Jennings saw black smoke billowing up from the forest, a sure signal that the fire already moved through the tree tops, blowing hot through the crowns, quickly igniting the conifers and poplars in its path in explosions of fire.
The firefighters who tried to chase the fire with hose ran out of length.
Fire 9 was out of control. It raced ahead at 10 metres a minute and was picking up speed. Heat radiated out for hundreds of metres. Looking for a water source, Jennings went to a nearby valley. It had been packed with conifers, but they were all alight, glowing orange and white, a hot oven in the kindling forest.
A forest fire burns as viewed from Real Martin Drive in Fort McMurray Alta. on Sunday May 1, 2016. Robert Murray/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network
Jennings realized this fire wasn't going out any time soon. The job now was to work on the staging area before the crew had to leave at nightfall, so that other firefighters would have a safe and solid anchor to fight the blaze in coming days. They needed such a base in case the wind suddenly changed and the fire blew back on the firefighters. They would be safer in an area where most of the fuel was had already been used up.
For now it was up to the water bombers to do the heavy lifting on Fire 9, to see if maybe they could somehow box it in. But already the wildfire crew was thinking and saying the obvious: this fire is moving fast toward the city.
It didn't seem real to Jennings. He had always wanted to fight big fires, to do important work, but he'd never dealt with a wildfire both so crazy and so close to a city. As he got choppered out at sunset, he saw the fire had travelled six kilometres toward town, ending up just a kilometre from Highway 63 and the homes and businesses along it.
Bernie Schmitte had fought every kind of fire in his 24 years with the province, working up from forest ranger to heli-torch fire ignition specialist to wildfire manager for the Fort McMurray region in 2011. Schmitte, 51, first saw Fire 9 when he was out on his motorcycle on a road northwest of town. He spotted the white plume rise in the forest across the Athabasca River. He called in and was satisfied to hear that water bombers and a crew were already on the fire.
At once, he headed in to work downtown, just in time to get news of a second wildfire, this one on a hill near the highway on the northern edge of the city, with the massive suburban development of Timberlea above and the industrial shops and yards of the TaigaNova district below.Schmitte looked out an office window to see the two plumes, the massive darker columns of Fire 9 and grey smoke from TaigaNova.
A plane fights a wildfire near Fort McMurray on May 1, 2016.
Two fires at once. Now he felt anxious.
Water bombers were on their way from Whitecourt, about 500 kilometres to the southwest, but Schmitte redirected the first plane from Fire 9 to the TaigaNova fire.
The call was a no-brainer. The safety of people and property took precedence over a wildfire outside of the city. The initial drops of fire retardant had to go on TaigaNova, and its threat was nullified in short order.
All over town, fire officials saw the two wildfire plumes. Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen decided to activate the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo's emergency operations centre at Firehall 5 at the south end of the city.
Fire 9 got its first dose of fire retardant about an hour after ignition, when a second water bomber arrived from Whitecourt, one of the big Lockheed L-188 Electra four-engine bombers, the biggest and fastest water bomber in Alberta. It cruised up at 555 km/h with a load of 2,700 pounds of retardant.
Bombers will drop fire retardant at the hot, moving front of the fire if there's hope of stopping it. But Fire 9 was already well beyond that kind of control. Embers flew ahead, hot sparks that could travel hundreds of metres and jump over a line of fire retardant.
Bernie Schmitte, Wildfire Manager with Fort McMurray Wildfire Management Area, speaks about fighting the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires during an interview in Fort McMurray on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.
The bombers spent the evening dropping on the northwest edge of the blaze. A bird dog command plane directed the bombers to make numerous drops there, hoping to bend and steer Fire 9 south of the city. The blaze now charged ahead at close to 20 metres a minute.
In the Electra's cockpit, pilot Ken Buchanan, a 30-year veteran of wildfire bombing, was not too worried. The blaze seemed far from town to him and nothing exceptional as far as wildfires go. Nonetheless, it got close enough that Mayor Melissa Blake decided call a mandatory evacuation for a trailer court and one smaller neighbourhood in the path of the fire.
Wildfire usually dies down in the cool of evening, but Fire 9 kept burning into the dark of night, with smoke rising high. At last the smoke column collapsed, though, making a flyover inspection possible.
Around midnight, Schmitte went up in a chopper. He looked out over the fire with night-vision infrared goggles. From high up above, peering through the high-tech specs, he was astonished by the fire's spread and its heat. The entire perimeter still glowed red. Hot spots abounded.
Schmitte thought about how late into the night Fire 9 had burned. He'd only seen that happen one other time in his career,at the devastating May 2001 Chisholm fire, the hottest wildfire in Alberta's history, where the crowns of trees burned close to midnight.
Fire 9 had a similar feel just now.
This fire is going to give us some difficulties, Schmitte thought.