Fort McMurray Fires (Photo Credit Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

On Sunday, May 1 shortly after 4 pm, a crew from the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Department reported a wildfire in the vicinity of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. Though the fire, which was labeled MWF-009 because it was the ninth such blaze encountered this season was similar to the previous ones, it concerned firefighters more for two reasons.

MWF-009 was closer to the town of Fort McMurray than the other fires had been. Also, the prevailing hot, dry temperatures and low humidity combined with arid forests to serve as fuel, made for perfect conditions to transform MWF-009 into a catastrophic wildfire. By Sunday night, the danger of that happening seemed so imminent that the residents of Gregoire, a neighborhood at the southernmost end of Fort McMurray were told to be ready to evacuate on short notice.

Fire forces residents to evacuate ( Photo Credit: DarrenRD via Wikimedia Commons

However, by Monday night MWF-009, which had burnt through almost 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) of dry forest, appeared to be moving away from the town. Residents who woke up to clear skies on Tuesday, thought the danger had been averted. But the relief was short-lived. Propelled by high winds, the fierce wildfire turned direction and began heading directly toward Fort McMurray. Within hours, it jumped the Athabasca River that runs north of the town and started making its way towards homes and businesses in the area.

By the end of the week, 100,000 people had been forced to flee their homes, and more than 1,600 structures had been burnt down. The area’s high temperatures thwarted all attempts to douse the uncontrollable fire. Attempts to control it from the skies also proved futile due to the dense smoke and powerful flames.

Aerial view of Fires (Photo Credit: NASA)

On Monday, May 9 over a week after the raging inferno began, temperatures finally dropped, enabling the firefighters to gain some control and divert the fire away from the city. While some hotspots remain, the worst seems to be over, at least for Fort McMurray. Even more heartening is the fact that the brave firefighters were able to save over 90% of the structures, or about 25,000 businesses and residences, from being burnt to ashes. Though residents are not allowed to return yet, there is some comfort in the knowledge that their lives may not be totally devastated. Also, while the fire has caused billions of dollars in damages and is already one of the most expensive natural disasters in Canada’s history, it does not seem to have taken any lives. This, of course, could change once officials are able to examine the fire-ravaged town.

Meanwhile, MWF-009, which is now called Horse River Fire, after a river winding through the area where it first started, continues to rage on. However, thanks to some help from Mother Nature and the tremendous efforts of the more than 1,000 firefighters, it has been contained to within a 621 Sq. mile area about 30-40 km away from the neighboring province of Saskatchewan. Though the wildfire has yet to cross the border, officials warn that the danger is far from over. They maintain that unless the area experiences significant rainfall, the fire will continue to burn for several months, raising the possibility of it getting out of control again.

Projected Risk from MWF-009 ( Photo Credit: Natural Resources Canada)

As is the case during such natural disasters, Fort McMurray residents have seen an outpouring of support from the local community. In addition to donations, many people have also opened their homes for those in need of shelter. Animal welfare groups are attempting to rescue the pets that got left behind and reunite them with their anxious owners. Even Syrian refugees that arrived in the nearby city of Calgary less than six months ago have organized a group to help. According to Saima Jamal, co-founder of the Syrian Refugees Support Group, one young refugee has donated all the toys he had been given upon arrival to Canada. Hopefully, the residents of Fort McMurray will be able to return home and start the arduous task of rebuilding their lives soon.