A territorial government photo shows a controlled burn operation at Plummers Lodge during the 2014 wildfire season.
Years of collaborative research will make the Northwest Territories far better-prepared for the next megafire season than in 2014, experts from five organizations predict.
At a workshop this week in Yellowknife, scientists and wildfire response managers said unprecedented cooperation between teams following the devastating summer of 2014 is paying off.
Those teams have now created years of focused research on 2014’s fires and the aftermath. As a result, the territory’s own specialists feel well-placed to see another season of megafires coming and prepare accordingly.
“Looking back at 2014, there wasn’t necessarily that really good recognition that the fire environment had changed from previous years,” said Richard Olsen, the NWT’s fire operations manager.
“Now there are some key things that will help us monitor those kinds of conditions and tell us that we need to be upping our resources or tailoring our response to be a little more aggressive.”
Olsen said the territory, with help from researchers, had made significant advances in the way it both remotely monitors and models fires over the past five years.
“There are at least six different products we’ve started incorporating into our monitoring program, to the point where we can discover fires in a relatively short period of time, and also monitor and visually see the growth of those,” he said.
“A lot of that is going to help us in terms of prioritizing response to fire and predicting what may occur.”
There is as yet no firm forecast for the 2019 season and no suggestion it will be at all similar to 2014.
Severity of the NWT wildfire season appears broadly cyclical from past data. Last summer was especially quiet, burning just 0.4 percent of the total area consumed by 2014’s fires.
‘Sense of anxiety’
The summer of 2014 inflicted the most intense wildfire season in living memory on the Northwest Territories, burning by some estimates more than three million hectares of land.
Hundreds of fires burned in the NWT that season, leading the territorial government to spend more than $55 million – over eight times its budget – trying to bring some of them under control.
“It wasn’t just the active fires,” said Andrew Applejohn, a senior science advisor at the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “It was interruptions in our lives, smoke in the air, ash fall daily. That sense of anxiety that people just didn’t know what was going to happen next, all across the southern half of the territory.”
“I remember sitting next to an ER doctor from Yellowknife, talking about the mental health and anxiety impacts she saw throughout that summer,” recalled University of Guelph ecologist Merritt Turetsky.
Peter Griffith, a NASA scientist studying climate change in northern Canada, remembered being grounded in the wilderness for two days as floatplanes could not take off from Yellowknife to retrieve his team, so thick was the smoke.
However, the fires were – in one sense – conveniently timed to coincide with NASA’s launch of a new, decade-long assessment of arctic and boreal environmental vulnerability.
By late January 2015, NASA and other partners had returned to Yellowknife for a workshop bringing together all territorial government departments and a range of other agencies. Their objective: to begin understanding what happened in 2014, what was now happening as a result, and what might be learned.
“This has led to a pretty impressive network of inter-related research that’s happening across the region,” said Dr Jennifer Baltzer, from Wilfrid Laurier University, which opened a Yellowknife research office in 2017. “It’s helping us to advance our understanding of the response of NWT ecosystems, and our ability to support communities.”
“One of the biggest things that happened,” said Olsen, “was the groups coming together and the identification of the important questions.
“The relationships we’ve built since that time have helped improve our understanding and interpretation of what the fire environment is. That has given us a good groundwork for making better decisions in the NWT.
“I can’t stress enough that we were quite limited in our scope and knowledge [in 2014]. Without these relationships and back-and-forth, and that quest for good understanding of what is going on, I don’t think we’d be in the state we are right now. Even if you look at the training our firefighters are receiving, it’s all built on this research and knowledge and the drive to make good decisions that have a long-lasting effect.”
‘Things are different’
There have been surprises for researchers along the way.
“We’ve learned just how different things are in the NWT compared to other big fires,” said Turetsky, who cited the example of Alaska’s significant 2004 wildfire season – the state’s worst on record – which featured 701 fires and more than 2.6 million hectares burned.
“We expected to see more-or-less a lot of the same kinds of [environmental] responses, post-fire, here that we did in Alaska in 2004,” said Turetsky, “and we’ve had to re-learn quite a bit.
“Things are really different here. We are starting to understand why, and it really speaks to the need for fire management plans and fire policy plans for the NWT that are based on NWT data.”
Olsen and colleagues are now working to translate lessons from the research into precisely that kind of planning – including finding better ways to communicate about fires with community leaders and residents.
“Something that’s been kind-of missing, from my perspective at least, is I don’t know if the communities, the population, and the scientific community have the same information available to them so they can have conversations and understanding around what’s actually going on,” said Olsen.
“What fire means to individuals impacts expectations on our operations.
“I see a huge potential to help with those conversations and to build acceptance and trust that the decisions being made are being done in the best way possible.”
This week’s workshop will see efforts continue to join up different strands of research on the 2014 season.
“This is the most thorough post-mortem of a fire season that has ever happened,” said Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist from the federal government’s Northern Forestry Centre.
“In light of this, we got products we had never seen before. I think we are lot better-equipped to get into the next stage, which is understanding and predicting.
“Whether we like it or not, we’re going to be asked to forecast. We need to be able to provide thoughtful answers.”