Fort McMurray Fire: Rain Could Be A Double-Edged Sword For Wildfire-Stricken Area

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Firefighters near Fort McMurray, Alta., have been anxiously awaiting rain to help extinguish an out-of-control wildfire that has been burning for over two weeks.

The region is expecting high temperatures with low humidity and plenty of wind for the next few days, but there's a strong possibility of rain on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

However, experts say a downpour could be a double-edged sword for the oilsands community as heavy rain could have negative consequences for the region's water supply.

fort mcmurray
Fire support crews extinguish a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray. (Photo: Getty)

“They are going to see types of water quality that they haven’t seen in the past, and that water quality will likely change rapidly at some points in time, particularly during heavy rains. These will be the greatest periods of treatment challenge," University of Waterloo professor Monica Emelko said in an interview with The University of Alberta blog.

University of Alberta professor Uldis Silins added that if rain washes contaminants from the blaze into the nearby Athabasca River, it could be difficult to treat, possibly leading to public health concerns for residents.

Fort McMurray's water treatment plant is so far undamaged by a wildfire that has grown to over 3,550 square kilometres. The entire area is under a boil water advisory.

"Water quality will likely change rapidly at some points in time, particularly during heavy rains."

While water quality is a serious long-term concern in the fire's aftermath, a rainy day could have more short-term positive effects.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Monday that the city is dealing with serious air quality issues.

Air quality is monitored on a scale of one to 10, the lower the number, the better. As of Thursday morning, the air quality in Fort McMurray was a 14, posing a "very high health risk" according to the province's air quality health index. On Monday, that number was 38.

Rain is one of the ways air quality can be improved, by washing smoke and other pollutants out of the air.

fort mcmurray rain
Wood Buffalo officials shared this photo of a few minutes of rain in the Fort McMurray area on Facebook last week. Firefighters in the area say a downpour is necessary to help halt an out-of-control wildfire. (Photo: Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo/Facebook)

Precipitation could also have a big impact on the forest's regrowth.

"You’ll see new plants sprouting within six weeks if you have rainfall. Once a fire stops and if there’s moisture the new forest will start growing almost immediately," wildfire expert Tim Lynham told Maclean's.

The wildfire has burnt through massive swaths of land, and forced over 88,000 people from their homes.

"Unless we have a significant rain event of 100 millimetres of rain, we expect to be out fighting the fire in the forested area for months to come,'' Chad Morrison of Alberta Wildfires said in a briefing last week.

With files from The Canadian Press

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