Fire creates weather systems and black rain

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

On May 30, fire 069, formerly known as the Maria Lake fire, built its own weather system, John MacDonald, McMillan Fire Complex incident commander says. The heat and ash formed clouds and created a thunder storm. It rained black. Lightning from the storm sparked fire 078 and 079 to the east of 069.

On June 5, fire 079 was the most active fire, MacDonald says. It was at a level five fire intensity. However, the main fire, 049 was at level two. This is quite low. There was the odd tree candling, but it is mostly black.

Candling refers to the tops of individual or groups of trees on fire, says Leah Lovequist information officer for Slave Lake Forest Area.

Fires are rated from one (low activity) to six (high activity), says firefighter Ben Graunke. On his last rotation, he was at the Manning fire. He saw flames that were taller than the trees. That was a level six.

Graunke is based in Rocky Mountain House. He has cousins in Slave Lake. This is his third season fighting fires.

June 5 was his first full day at the McMillan complex. His crew was “wrapping-up” an area. This is done when the fire intensity is low.

When “wrapping-up,” Graunke says, one person in the crew has a chainsaw. He or she goes ahead of the rest cutting fallen trees and brush. The rest of the crew follow with a one-and-a-half inch hose extinguishing hot-spots.

Early on, the fire was mostly fought from the air, Lovequist says. Now there are “boots on the ground.” A firefighter interviewed a week earlier would have been doing a very different job.

According to a fire update on June 6, the McMillan Complex consisted of 049 (248,847 ha.), 79 (860 ha.), 078 (137 ha.) and 090 (187 ha.). These were 4.9km and 3.3km west of Wabasca, 26.5km northeast of Marten Beach, 32.8km northeast of Slave Lake, and 9.3km southeast of Trout Lake.

Until the last week of May, all fires in the region were started by the humans, Lovequist says. 049, 069 and other fires are under investigation. The investigation takes a long time.

The first two McMillan fires, 049 and 050, started on May 18, north of Hwy. 754, 30km from Wabasca and 40km from Slave Lake. For the first while, these were managed from the duty room at the Slave Lake Forest Area.

On May 26, an Alberta incident management team arrived, freeing the duty room to deal with new fires. Camp was set up on kilometre 16 on Hwy. 754.

Over time other fires have been added to the complex, including 069.

During the night of May 29 and early morning of May 30, the wildfire spread 16 km south and jumped the highway.

On May 30, the camp and incident management team relocated to the airstrip in Slave Lake.

On June 2, the Maria Lake fire 069 merged with 049.

On June 4, an Ontario incident management team arrived to transition with the Alberta team. They took over on June 5. The teams changed because firefighters and management work for 14 days, then have days off.

A fire this size takes months to fully extinguish, MacDonald says. The only thing that will put it out completely is rain; lots of rain.

The first priority with any fire is human life and communities, MacDonald says. The second is protecting oilfield and log piles. Some log piles have been lost in the fire, but the oil wells look good from the air.

MacDonald has many years of experience. His first time in Alberta was 2001 to fight the Chisholm fire. That fire was a bit earlier in the year. It was the first time he’d seen aspens candle and burn well.

With the McMillan Complex, “the aspens are our friends,” MacDonald says. For the most part, aspens aren’t burning, because of the time of year and the leaves on the aspens.

Looking at the fire map, there are indents into the fire perimeter. On June 5, there was one around a few lakes and a long thin one on the southeast.

These are called ‘bays,’ MacDonald says. This is likely a low area, which is a bit wet, with aspens. The area around the lake is likely muskeg.

At the camp, it is difficult to walk in camp without running into a John or Jonathan.

Information officer Jonathan Scott was pleased, for once, to be called Jonathan instead of Jon. Scott knew of several other Jonathans in camp. In the midst of guiding local media around the camp, he met another one: Jonathan Dewalt in map making. There are others.

Scott’s home base is in northwestern Ontario. This area is also boreal forest, so he is accustomed to boreal fires. He has been working in forestry communications since 2014.

Like the Alberta team which managed the fire from May 26 to June 4, this team is classified as a level one strike team. This is the highest level of fire management.

The fire management is organized under the Incident Command System (ICS). This is an international system which allows crews from across Canada and other countries to work together to fight fires.

ICS training is like an apprenticeship, Scott and Lovequist explain. People take courses, and are mentored on the fire. It can take a few seasons to get a certificate. An incident commander must be certified in many areas.

At the McMillan Fire Complex, as of June 5, there were firefighters from Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Parks Canada. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick left on June 6. More firefighters were coming from Quebec, Ontario and the United States.

Back: information officers Jonathan Scott (McMillan complex) and Leah Lovequist (Slave Lake Forest Area). Front: map department Jonathan Dewalt, Allison Brown, and Jason Lee.
McMillan Complex map as of June 2 at 8 a.m. Orange is the fire perimeter and the red flames indicate an out of control fire. From Alberta Ag and Forestry.
Ben Graunke, Alberta wildfire firefighter.

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