A photo of a wildfire posted to Facebook by Wood Buffalo National Park on June 2, 2023.
The Northwest Territories may be an outlier as Canada tries to cool its way out of the country’s worst wildfire season on record, officials say.
The territory is expected to remain warmer than average as we head toward the fall, possibly further extending an intense wildfire season that currently shows little sign of stopping.
An unprecedented fire ban across almost all of the North Slave and South Slave regions will continue for at least one more week, the NWT government said on Friday.
At a national briefing on the same day, wildfire specialists said 13.4 million hectares of Canada have burned in 2023, six times the average over the past 10 years. More than two million hectares have burned in the NWT.
This wildfire season is on track to be more than twice as bad, nationally, as the previous worst season of 1989.
“This is by far the largest amount of area burned in Canada since we started keeping good records,” said Michael Norton, director general of the Canadian Forest Service’s Northern Forestry Centre.
“This season truly has been relentless.”
Asked if this fire season will drag on into October or November nationwide, Sébastien Chouinard – director of the Canadian Meteorological Centre – had an optimistic outlook for most of Canada, but excepted the NWT from that.
“What we see over the next few weeks, few months, is that trend for temperature above normal will decrease,” Chouinard said.
“There’s a tendency for the Northwest Territories to remain slightly above normal with respect to temperature. Overall, for the rest of the country, it’s close to normal.
“We don’t see any major trends in precipitation above or below normal.”
Parts of the Northwest Territories have been setting heat records throughout the summer. Yellowknife had an extraordinarily warm May and a similarly hot and dry July. Inuvik had its hottest July on record.
The NWT’s 2022 wildfire season ran unusually late, with dozens of fires still active in the back half of October.
The outlook presented on Friday suggested this fire season could be identical, and so far the NWT has seen its tally of active fires only increase since June, with no sign of the season even beginning to wind down.
Large parts of the territory are also considered abnormally dry according to the Canadian drought code.
“This year, with the drought as widespread as it has been, I would imagine that we will see some fire activity as long as that persists until the snowfall,” said Brian Simpson, the Canadian Forest Service’s head of wildfire intelligence and predictive services.
“Fire season is not over and it is likely we will experience significant fire activity for many weeks yet,” said Norton, speaking of Canada as a whole.
Across the country, this year’s fires have now produced more than a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. By comparison, the NWT’s emissions for 2021 – including industry, energy and transportation – are estimated at 1.3 million tonnes.
Asked what such a severe season might mean for wildfires next year, Norton said nothing could be “directly extrapolated,” even if long-term patterns of drought might have effects over many years, but the broader pattern is clear.
“Longer, tougher fire seasons are going to be part of our future, in general,” he said.
“There’ll be huge variability between years, but the long-term trend is clear. Temperature and precipitation amounts will lead to large and aggressive fires trending upward in general.
“There is an important message, here, about needing to adapt to that reality.”