Is the Beast still burning? Fort McMurray wildfire may smoulder through winter

The Beast could still be burning. The fire which devastated much of Fort McMurray in May may still be smouldering, deep underground.

'Once that snow starts to melt ... everything has an opportunity to heat up'

The Fort McMurray wildfire breached city limits on May 3, ripping through several neighbourhoods, destroying thousands of buildings and other homes. (Terry Reith/CBC)

The Beast could still be burning.

The fire which devastated much of Fort McMurray in May may still be smouldering, deep underground.

At its peak, the fire was moving 30 to 40 metres per minute, creating its own weather pattern of wind and lighting.

It crowned high in the trees, raining down ash and cinders as it raced north, jumping the Athabasca River, and wrapping itself around the northern Alberta city like a noose.

Even then, smouldering ash underground grew into powerful infernos, making the fire an unpredictable foe for firefighters. In the end the Beast covered 589,552 hectares and devoured 2,400 structures.

Extinguished on the surface, the fire may continue burning undetected throughout the winter, feeding on peat and dead vegetation.

'Firefighters will be out there again' 

"Over the last several months, we've received a substantial amount of rain that's continued to help firefighters with their efforts," said Laura Stewart, a wildfire information officer with the province.

"But given the size, scope and complexity of the wildfire, firefighters will continue to monitor the area for the next year to ensure that it's completely extinguished."

Stewart says, fires of the intensity seen in Fort McMurray can burrow underground for the winter, only to resurface, months later.

As soon as spring breaks, crews will be out scanning the area for any sign of smoke and hotspots.

"Once we've had the winter and we've hopefully had a good snow over the winter, we'll wait until the spring," Stewart said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active. 

'No threat to the community' 

"Once that snow starts to melt and the ground and vegetation is exposed, everything has an opportunity to heat up with that warm spring sun, firefighters will be out there again, doing infrared scanning."

If any hotspots are detected, firefighters will dig down, exposing the bed of hot coals and douse the area thoroughly.

Depending on the size of the hotspot, heavy equipment and helicopters will be called in to assist ground crews in their work.

Although monitoring is necessary, Stewart say, if anything remains of the fire, it no longer poses a threat to residents or property in the Wood Buffalo region.

"Even if smoke were to be identified in the early spring there would be no threat to the community," Stewart said. 

"If the smoke is visible, firefighters just need to be made aware of it, and we remain aware of it through our constant scanning, but there is no threat whatsoever."