Friday, August 18, 2023

21st Century Fire: “...there is no top end.”

I don't think there is anything more terrifying than a wildfire. 
If Canadians are now beginning to grasp the magnitude and imminent danger of climate change, then it is this terrible Canadian fire season that has done it. 
Today's Canadian fire news is bad, and its getting worse -- Yellowknife evacuated, and the Okanagan Valley is on fire tonight: Journalist John Vaillant has a new book out - Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast - about the Fort McMurray fire in May 2016 and the Literary Review of Canada has published Bob Armstrong's review titled Alarm Bells
Here are excerpts from that great review:
...Vaillant discusses the nature of fire, shows how the effects of increased burning have been understood by science since the nineteenth century, and demonstrates the growing severity of conflagrations brought on by heat waves and droughts deepened by climate change...
...In one section, Vaillant discusses the power released by a forest fire, which is measured in kilowatts per metre — that is, energy released for each metre of the burning front. At 1,000 kilowatts per metre, ground crews can manage a blaze with hoses and shovels. Above 2,000, it may be a challenge for water bombers. At 10,000, it’s totally out of control. In 2001, a record-breaking forest fire in northern Alberta, known as the Chisholm fire, hit 225,000 kilowatts per metre. How powerful is that? Vaillant cites a research paper showing that at its peak, the Chisholm fire released four times as much energy as Little Boy — the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan — every minute.
If you can’t get your mind around that kind of force, you’re not alone. As Vaillant argues, even professionals were unable to anticipate it until they met it face to face...
As the flames approached town, people in Fort McMurray simply failed to imagine how bad the situation could get. The fire had been burning out of control along the nearby Horse River, and the forecast for heat and wind was no secret. The temperature reached the 30s, 15 degrees above normal and 6 above the record for that day; the humidity was 15 percent, which Vaillant notes is more typical of Death Valley in summer than northern Alberta in spring. Five years before, a springtime fire had destroyed a third of the town of Slave Lake, just a few hundred kilometres southwest. But in Fort McMurray on May 3, people went about their business, dropping kids off at school and going to work. Time-stamped photos show a massive cloud of smoke bearing down on the city in the early afternoon, when still no evacuation order had been given.
McMurrians aren’t uniquely blind to disaster. Vaillant describes the Lucretius Problem, a concept the statistician and risk analyst Nassim Taleb named after Titus Lucretius Carus. Two millennia ago, the Roman poet wrote in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), “Any river is huge if it be the greatest man has seen / who has seen no greater before.” In other words, an individual’s understanding of what “hot” and “dry” and “fire hazard” mean will be limited by the heat waves and droughts in their own experience. Climate change is making these and other weather phenomena more extreme than ever, but it’s also increasingly difficult to imagine future catastrophic conditions.
When MWF-009 hit the city and the battle began in earnest, fighters were hampered by a number of factors related to modern urban living as practised in this urban outpost in the forest. In a municipality full of highly paid mechanics, welders, equipment operators, and other skilled blue-collar workers, many garages and driveways were packed with motorcycles, snowmobiles, powerboats, and classic cars. “This deep allegiance to the internal combustion engine posed a major problem,” Vaillant writes. “Residents owned so many vehicles, recreational and otherwise, that it was impossible to drive them all out.” Left behind, many of these vehicles became bombs waiting to be detonated, along with the tanks of welding gas in the garages of serious do-it-yourselfers and the propane barbecue tanks on nearly every deck and balcony.
Contributing further to the disaster was the way many modern homes are built and furnished. Vinyl siding, asphalt shingles, laminate flooring and countertops, and furniture made from hydrocarbon-based synthetics contributed to the speed of the inferno. Vaillant cites a 2005 study by Underwriters Laboratories in which fires were set in a pair of model rooms: one furnished with old-style products made of wood and natural fibres and the other full of modern synthetics. In a simulation involving a knocked-over candle, the entire modern room burst into flames within four minutes, as gases emitted by the heated furnishings exploded in a flashover. The “legacy” room took another twenty-five minutes to reach a similar point. As a result of the intense heat of the Fort McMurray fire and the explosive power of the gases produced by the homes, it was taking just five minutes to destroy a single house.
Worse still, the design of the city, with neighbourhoods surrounded by boreal forest, gave the fire a pathway. (When I started my newspaper career in the 1980s, I lived in Beacon Hill, which was reduced to cracked concrete foundations.) This is not an urban design phenomenon unique to Fort McMurray. Across forested parts of Canada and the United States, what’s been termed the wildland-urban interface is both highly desirable among homebuyers and the site of potential disaster. “It is a beautiful place to live,” Valliant writes, “until it goes feral.”
When Vaillant shifts his focus beyond Fort McMurray, he shows how the Lucretius Problem still hampers our thinking. When MWF-009 was the worst we’d seen, it was the worst we could imagine. But conditions just kept deteriorating. “If twenty-first-century fire has taught us anything,” he writes, “it’s that there is no top end.” Since 2016, there have been record-breaking fire seasons in Australia (in 2020), record-breaking temperatures in Lytton, British Columbia (in 2021), and “worst air in the world” alerts in major cities across western North America. This year, such alerts were issued for Toronto and New York City.
MWF-009 and more recent fires have spawned weather anomalies that “sound more like details from Old Testament or Greek mythology than events reported from one of the twenty-first century’s wealthiest industrial centers.” In Fort McMurray, the anomaly in question was a fire-borne thunderhead, known as a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, which spewed particulate matter and carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere. In the years since, even hotter fires in California and Australia have produced tornadoes capable of launching vehicles into the air.
...If we’ve known about climate change for a while, why has action taken so long? Vaillant points to greed as a central factor: after absorbing the science of climate change, the oil industry responded with campaigns of propaganda and misdirection. But a larger factor, surely, is that, at the individual level, fossil fuels make life immeasurably better. Vaillant paints a picture of a driver barrelling down the highway at a hundred kilometres an hour in a Chevy Silverado rated at 600 horsepower, toasty warm in the midst of Canadian winter: “Prior to the Petrocene Age, only a king or a pharaoh could have summoned such power, and its equivalent would have required hundreds of enslaved people and draft animals. Today, with cheap and plentiful oil at our disposal, everyone’s an emperor.”
Even when we know that as a species we must stop living like emperors, it’s awfully tempting to respond with “You first.”
Meanwhile, as Canada burns, the CPC and Poilievre are keeping busy rage-farming about the CBC: Scrimshaw's analysis:


Anonymous said...

Sure Poilievre's Cons and Smith's UCP have their heads in the sand when it comes to climate change, but are the Libs and NDP really doing a better job when they show up with their carbon tax water pistol to fight a global wildfire? Four of the five best-selling vehicles in Canada last year were gas-guzzling pickups, the other was an SUV. Is that a tax that's having the desired effect?

Nothing short of shutting down the Canadian oil and gas industry in short order is going to do it now. Instead, the feds are committing over $30 billion (after promising it would take $5 billion) to build out the TMX pipeline so we can sell even more oil.

Bottom line, I think Scrimshaw's wrong and climate won't be a significant issue at the polls. No Canadian party will commit to taking timely and appropriate action to deal with the threat at hand. And Vaillant has identified the problem, it's us:

Cap said...

... cont.
Even when we know that as a species we must stop living like emperors, it’s awfully tempting to respond with “You first.”

Cathie from Canada said...

Thanks, Cap - a thoughtful comment, as always!