News / Edmonton

Fort McMurray One Year Later: 'Wildfires are becoming larger and more complex and harder to fight'

What experts learned from fighting 'The Beast'.

Scott Jennings is a firefighter who has just returned to the Fort McMurray area for the new season. This spring, fire teams are hoping to put lessons learned from last year’s disaster to use.

Jennifer Friesen/For Metro / Metro Order this photo

Scott Jennings is a firefighter who has just returned to the Fort McMurray area for the new season. This spring, fire teams are hoping to put lessons learned from last year’s disaster to use.

Buried underground on the western shore of Gordon Lake in northern Alberta, the forest fire dubbed “The Beast” lives.

Not that Bernie Schmitte, the forest area manager for Fort McMurray, uses that moniker.

“We don’t name our fires after mystical creatures,” he said dryly.

His team is now gearing up for a new fire season — and learning from last year.

He is in charge of both forest management and firefighting for an area of boreal forest that starts south of Fort McMurray and stretches up to the Northwest Territories.

More from the Fort McMurray One Year Later series:

His Fort McMurray office is a command centre full of screens that track everything from the location of water bombers and lightning strikes, to the amount of food each camp has in stock.

“Wildfires are becoming larger and more complex and harder to fight,” he said, noting his department constantly evolves to keep up.

Bernie Schmitte is the forest area manager for Fort McMurray and area.

Jennifer Friesen/For Metro

Bernie Schmitte is the forest area manager for Fort McMurray and area.

The Fort McMurray fire drove home lessons about the importance of building relationships between governmental departments, as well as between government and industry, Schmitte said.

“We’ve learned that sometimes we should do more than just phone calls,” he said.

His department is also rolling out improvements that were in the works before the fire, like adding an extra fire crew, enabling fire watch towers to upload weather automatically and hammering out a new fire management plan for the area.

Still, he said his job is a constant balancing act between public safety and the reality of being located in the heart of the boreal forest.

Kerry Anderson, an Edmonton-based fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service said that the Fort Mac fire has “elevated the urgency” of ongoing work to make a better model to predict the behaviour of large fires.

“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem,” he noted. “The cones of some trees are waiting for a forest fire to come through before they open up and reseed the forest. It’s a forest designed to live and breathe fire.”

Since fires are a given — and becoming more frequent thanks to climate change — more accurate predictions are a necessity.

A firefighter stamps out hot spots following the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Canadian Press file

A firefighter stamps out hot spots following the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Even last year, models predicted above average fire risk thanks to warm temperatures and a lack of precipitation, Anderson said. (“Now does that qualify as a prediction of a catastrophic fire that would burn down Fort McMurray? No it doesn’t,” he added.)

Part of the answer may lie in a new American technology called FireTec that was brought to Alberta after the Slave Lake fire in 2011. It uses a super computer to model how fires behave on the landscape. If scientists understand that better they can start introducing defensive measures like fuel breaks, which are gaps in vegetation created to slow a fire down, Anderson said.

It’s only been in use here for about a year, but Anderson said scientists hope to use it to study what happened in Fort McMurray last year. The province is expected to release a review of the fire response in May, along with recommendations. The RCMP is also still at work on its investigation into the cause of the fire, which is still technically burning.

After monitoring the embers through the winter, crews deemed the fire no longer a threat, Schmitte said, but the goal is still 100 per cent extinguishment. So helicopters will soon drop crews at Gordon Lake to dig out the remaining hotspots from the Horse Creek fire (the official name) and extinguish them once and for all.

“We don’t say that a fire is extinguished,” Schmitte said, “until it’s certain that there are no further hot spots.”

More on Metronews.ca