Expect a rough fire season, says forecaster Claire Martin

Meteorologist Claire Martin forecasts a rough fire season for Canada's northern communities. El Nino and climate change have set the conditions for more of what we've seen around Fort McMurray.

El Nino, climate change, a dry winter: It all adds up to extended and extreme fire risk

Fire burns near a road in Fort McMurray, Alta., last week. It's only May and fire season is just getting started. Our "boys of summer" are going to be the ones fighting fires. (Holly Ayearst/Canadian Press)

The outlook for Canada's 2016 fire season is rough. We've seen the season start early, we've got the lingering effects of a strong El Nino winter, we've got massive wildfires already dropping soot on soil and land — further aggravating the potential for further heatwaves — and we've got a climate that has undoubtedly changed.

So what does this all mean for Fort McMurray, already ravaged by a costly and dangerous fire? What does it mean for all of our northern communities?

It means all the ingredients are in place for a longer fire season, with a greater frequency and more widespread fires.

I was lucky enough to start my Canadian weather career in Alberta and from there have had some experience in "fire-weather forecasting."  

Some may be surprised to hear that Environment Canada, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Service and even some private weather forecasting companies have forecasters whose only job is to examine the weather and climate conditions pertaining solely to the threat of fires. And it would seem a simple enough job, right? Wrong!

Here's my analogy: baking a cake.

'All the necessary ingredients'

I cannot tell you the number of times I hear "all the necessary ingredients have come together to create this fire"— actually it's not that straightforward. In fact, that overly simplified statement is akin to telling a baker that to make a cake you merely need eggs, flour, butter and a hot oven.

As everyone knows just having the right ingredients sitting on the kitchen counter  does not make a cake. You have to bring them together at the right time, mix them in a certain way, and bake them for the right amount of time. Fires are exactly the same way.

So — sequentially — here's how we ended up with this devastating and explosive situation in Fort McMurray.

First the "oven" was set when the region experienced a dry winter and spring. Next the dry and wet ingredients were mixed perfectly — low humidity (our "wet" ingredients) with plenty of fuel,  the "dry" ingredients being snow-starved dead trees and brush.

Then there was a "trigger," be it a lightning bolt or a man-made event, which essentially placed the perfectly mixed ingredients into the "oven."

Now we're in a mess. So what next?

Fires with personality

Fires have a personality — they can be "jumpers,"  chaotically jumping from one tree-top crown to the next, or they can be "runners,"  literally running through entire areas burning everything in their path, or they can go "underground," smouldering beneath the surface waiting for the ingredients to mix together perfectly again.

Fort McMurray has experienced a "jumper/runner" fire. It's going to mutate, it will gradually start to slow down as cooler, more humid (wet) air moves in from the northwest. Using my baking analogy, this is like trying to finish cooking the cake in a clammy sauna rather than oven. It doesn't quite work.

But in all honesty, that's the least of our worries. It's only the first week of May — we're a full month ahead of the start of normal fire season — and Fort McMurray has hit 30 C twice already.

To get the longer-term fire forecast, we have to broaden our view and talk about climate patterns.

Hot 2015, followed by hot winter

New data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that January of 2016 was, for the globe, a truly extraordinary month. Coming off 2015, the hottest year ever recorded, January saw the greatest departure from average of any month on record, according to data provided by NASA.
NASA map shows degrees C above normal for various parts of the world. Arctic amplification is evident, with the great rise in temperature in the Arctic regions. (NASA)

But here's the rub: the record- breaking heat wasn't uniformly distributed around the planet — it was particularly pronounced at the top of the world, the high latitudes, showing temperature anomalies more than 4 C higher than the 1951 to 1980 average in this region.

Climate change has long been known to be particularly intense in the Arctic — a phenomenon known as "Arctic amplification" — but even so, lately the phenomenon has been extremely pronounced.

This unusual Arctic heat has been accompanied by a new record low level for Arctic sea ice during the normally ice-packed month of January, more than 100,000 square kilometres below average for the month, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the U.S.

And that is closely tied to warm Arctic air temperatures. Mark Serreze, director of the centre, has called this a "really badly timed coincidence."

For forecasters studying the mix, this points to an extended fire season.

Our "boys of summer" won't be those playing baseball, they'll be the ones fighting fires.


Claire Martin is a meteorologist and former national weather presenter with CBC News. She has been a weather observer in Lethbridge, Alta., and Fort Reliance, N.W.T., and is now freelancing as a writer/producer based out of North Vancouver, B.C.