NWT’s 2023 fire season predicted to be ‘extreme,’ authorities say

A photo taken of the wildfire burning near Scotty Creek several weeks ago. Mason Dominico/Scotty Creek Research Station

Hot, dry conditions are expected to create “extreme” wildfire conditions in parts of the NWT this spring and summer, according to the territory’s Department of Environment and Climate Change.

On Thursday afternoon, Richard Olsen, the department’s manager of fire operations, shared initial forecasts for the upcoming fire season in a media briefing.

As people can probably already tell, Olsen said, this spring is shaping up to be hot and dry. Largely in southern parts of the territory, that trend is expected to linger throughout June, July and potentially August.

“Some of the science is pointing towards us moving into more of a drought condition within the NWT,” Olsen said.



Based on topography, weather and fuel conditions, experts can predict wildfire severity for the upcoming season, he said.

Last year, surface fuels and duff – the layer of decomposing organic material on the forest floor – dried up throughout the fire season.

That means a large portion of the NWT will likely be under extreme conditions for the remainder of May, Olsen said. Extreme fire danger is expected to continue into June, especially around Great Slave Lake and in portions of the South Slave and Dehcho.  

Fire danger might diminish going into August and September, although Olsen said the models used to project the upcoming fire season show conflicting trends for the fall – some predict the fire season to taper off at end of August, while others forecast a second back-to-back prolonged fire season.



When fire danger is extreme, forests are very dry, ECC’s website reports. “Fires tend to start easily, spread quickly, and cause real challenges for firefighters when they need to be fought,” the department states.

The department recommends avoiding campfires or burning things unless necessary for food or warmth. When fire danger is extreme, hunting, fireworks, campfires or other burning may be restricted.

Despite the extreme conditions forecast, Olsen said: “People should always remember we’re in a fire environment.”

“It only has to be a little bit hot and a little bit dry and a little bit windy for a fire in the wrong spot to be a concern,” he added.

Hotter than Texas

The wildfire forecast comes on the heels of unusually hot early spring weather in parts of the territory. On Wednesday, mercury rose to 31C in Hay River – four times hotter than the average temperature for this time of year and hotter than cities in Texas that day.

Not far behind, Fort Smith reached 29C and Fort Providence hit 27C.

Many parts of the territory, including Fort Simpson, Nahanni Butte, Łutsel K’e and Yellowknife, are expected to hit 20C or above as the week continues.

Although the prospect of flooding is usually top of mind at this time of year, the early season heat has diverted authorities’ attention to the possibility of wildfires.



On Monday, ECC posted an update on Facebook, warning that extremely warm and dry weather in the south NWT throughout the week would quickly dry out the ground.

On Thursday, Olsen said the biggest risk coming from the hot spring weather is going to be within fine fuels and grasslands.

“The fuels that are exposed to the wind and the sun and the temperature, like your grasses, are the ones that really are the highest risk at this point in time,” he said.

Despite the intense heat this week, some areas are still frozen. Usually, Olsen said, there is a lag between the timing of snow melt and the start of lightning-caused fires as ice under thick peat or forested areas thaws and dries out.

“The frost has got to get out of the ground before it’s really going to be able to hold fire,” he said. “Right now, [lightning strikes] in some areas are almost hitting ice cubes, if you can imagine.”

Still, the weather could cause lightning-caused fires to show up a week or two earlier than they usually do in late May or June, he said.

As the ground thaws, the territorial government will also be keeping an eye out for overwintering fires, which smoulder under the snow and can reignite in the spring.

Although conditions last year could have led to overwintering fires, Olsen said monitoring over the next few days and weeks will provide more insight into the situation.



Preparations under way

Last year, a hotter-than-average summer and fall in the territory contributed to an active and prolonged wildfire season that went into the second half of October.

The season lasted so long that fire crews trying to protect a research station in the Dehcho region had to contend with freezing equipment.

“When we’re fighting fires and protecting structures, it is highly unusual for there to be the threat of freezing temperatures,” Mike Westwick, ECC’s wildfire information officer, told Cabin Radio at the time.

When the GNWT stopped reporting on the wildfire season on October 25, 2022, 30 fires were still active.

According to Olsen, 262 wildfires burned roughly 581,000 hectares last year. Compared to the 10-year average, he said that’s slightly more fires but slightly less area burned.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, Olsen said the territory is doing a number of things to prepare.

Through territorial and federal funding, the GNWT has been able to extend fire crews by up to two weeks in some communities, he said.

“This really is in response to the potential for extended fire seasons, as well as additional training requirements that we’re starting to see,” he said. “It’s really a lot of training that’s required to be a firefighter nowadays.”



The territory now has 34 four-person crews, totalling 132 firefighters. That includes two new seasonal fire crews – one in Inuvik and one in Dettah.

Olsen highlighted several other improvements and initiatives under way, including additional staff and training, new equipment and ongoing research. One research project in Fort Providence, for example, involves lighting crown fires next to buildings to see how materials stand up to fires to improve FireSmart recommendations.

Overall, Olsen said, the territory is “making sure we’ve got all the right people in all the right places, that they’ve got the right training, the right equipment, and they’re being given good directions so that they can safely do the work and be home at the end of the day to their friends and families.”

He also offered a reminder that the fire season has started.

“If you’re going to be burning for anything other than a campfire to keep warm and cook, you need a permit to burn,” he said.

He said people should consider whether they really need a fire and, if they are going to light one, make sure it’s in a safe location where it cannot spread.

Although person-caused fires are not as common in the NWT as in other jurisdictions, Olsen said, the GNWT has still spent $1.5 million putting them out in the past decade.

To report a suspected wildfire, ECC asks residents to call 1-877-698-3478. People looking for wildfire information can visit the GNWT’s wildfire update webpage or call 867-445-5484.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.