Fiery forecast issued for NWT

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Abnormally dry winter conditions could mean more intense wildland fires in the southern NWT and areas around Yellowknife, say officials.“We’re expecting fairly vigorous fire behaviour once the frost and snow kicks out of the ground,” said Richard Olsen, manager of fire operations with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

Members of the Edson Wildfire Management Area crew from Alberta work on a wildfire near Kakisa in 2014. photo courtesy of the Government of Alberta

The NWT has seen a dry spring and is forecast to have above average warming and drying conditions for large portions of the territory, Olsen said during a press briefing Monday.

Residents can expect a normal spring with progressively more intense fires across the Deh Cho, South Slave and Sahtu regions.

“We live in a fire environment,” said Olsen, adding that fires can be expected to burn naturally every season.

In August, the ENR will have to “keep an eye out” for portions of Great Slave Lake, he said.

The ministry will monitor and assess fires as they occur, and is already preparing its fire crews and aircraft.

Aircraft are deployed

The ENR maintains five aircraft on a long-term basis. It also has the ability to call in national supports from other provinces to do “quick strikes” – where aircraft are deployed for a specific fire and return to their provincial base once the fire is out.

The ENR will position one of its aircraft in the Deh Cho and move to other regions as the fire season progresses.

It employs an air tanker fleet of L1-88 aircraft and new 802 air tanker planes scheduled to start at various times. The first fleets will be active around May 22 until the second week of June.

The ENR will monitor fire situations, but will not dedicate additional resources to fight fires this year. Its fleets of aircraft and firefighting staff and queuing up for the coming fire season.

Fire conditions are difficult to predict, but sampling the ground for moisture and understanding snow cover can give some insight into likely fire conditions.

Climatic conditions

Soil moisture will have a direct influence on fire behaviour, said Olsen.

In 2017, there were 20 per cent more fires than the 20 year average of 213 wildland fires. The NWT was also experiencing similar climatic conditions to B.C. and Alberta’s aggressive fire seasons, said Olsen.

That year, 378 extra fire fighters were hired across the NWT to help tackle wildfires.

The 2017 fire season was the fifth most active in 30 years, following a five-year trend that boasted more intense fire seasons.

There are some “unusually dry” conditions in northern Alberta that may influence fire conditions in the southern NWT, he said.

The 2017 season saw 262 wildland fires which burned an area of just over 860,000 hectares.

June was unusually quiet with only 48 fires. Larger burns appeared in July around Fort Good Hope, and the period following an Aug. 7 heat wave where most zones measured above 30 degrees Celsius produced 80 per cent of the burn season.

The fire manager is reminding residents people going to cabins or using the forest should build fires away from brush and ensure fires are put out completely before leaving a site.

Smoke forecasts are available through firesmoke.ca and residents can check the ENR’s Twitter account for regular updates.

Residents who see fires are encouraged to call the toll free number: 1 877 NWT FIRE to notify authorities
of any wildland burns.

“Conditions are leaning towards the dry side of things,” said Olsen, but the ENR has to make strategic decisions about which fires it will fight based on whether communities and infrastructure are in danger.

Statistically, the ENR will work on 31 to 45 per cent of fires, either extinguishing them entirely or preventing them from going in a particular direction, he said.