A photo of fire fighting efforts posted to Wood Buffalo National Park's Facebook page on August 16, 2023.
Although timelines for a return home remain to evacuated communities unclear, here’s what we know about how fire crews could end the NWT’s wildfire threat and how long previous evacuations have lasted.
With nearly 70 percent of the territory’s population displaced by wildfires, many residents are wondering when they will be able to return home.
On Sunday, Hay River’s senior administrative officer said it will likely be weeks, while officials said the same for Fort Smith. In many other communities, the outlook for an end to evacuation orders is still unclear.
“I understand the anxiety, and the frustration, and folks wanting to get back home,” NWT government wildfire information officer Mike Westwick said in a press conference on Sunday evening. “It’s just so hard for me to put a date on any of these right now.”
According to Westwick, the kinds of fires burning in the NWT cannot be easily or quickly put out.
For example, Westwick said fires in the Fort Smith area are reportedly burning up to five or six-feet deep in the soil.
“That’s the kind of things that we’re up against here, as we try and control these fires and protect these communities,” he said.
When fires burn that deep, Westwick said, there’s more of a risk of them becoming holdover fires, which smoulder underground throughout the winter and re-emerge in the spring.
Climate change is creating conditions that make fires more likely to burn, and experts expect to see the size, frequency and severity of fires increase in a warming world. Climate change is also leading to a longer, more active fire season.
Mike Flannigan, a professor and wildfire expert at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, recently told the CBC many wildfires burning in the NWT will likely continue to burn through summer and autumn until winter.
Typically, the territory’s fire season runs from May 1 through September 30, according to Westwick.
“We would usually expect to see diminishing fire activity, even at this point in prior years. But of course, we’re facing a different reality,” he said on Sunday evening.
Last year, fires in the NWT burned into the middle of October, one of which caused significant damage to a research facility.
“In no way are we sitting here telling folks that we think it’ll be the end of September before people can return to Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River,” Westwick said.
“But at the same time, it’s really difficult for us to give any kind of exact operational timeline, because in this business, you win or lose based on the weather, and the weather is changing all the time.”
For instance, Westwick said, the Yellowknife fire would be “nearly impossible” to put out without help from the weather. The fire was last mapped at just over 167,000 hectares, according to the territory’s fire agency.
“To put this fire out, you would need a lot of rain,” Westwick said. “Like, a lot of rain.”
“I’m not talking a couple of days with three or four millimetres, which might quiet it down for a few days. I’m talking 20, 30, 35 millimetres to really kill a fire.”
In an update on Tuesday morning, the territory’s fire agency said the 10 to 11 millimetres of rain that recenlty in the Yellowknife area recently would little to alleviate drought conditions.
The territory’s fire behavior analyst estimates it would take at least 60 millimetres of rain over a 10-day period to bring back normal moisture levels in forest fuels – organic matter that can burn, such as needles, leaves, mosses and duff.
There is little precipitation in the forecast for the next week, NWT Fire said on Tuesday morning.
Crews move to direct attack on Yellowknife fire
In Sunday’s press conference, Westwick clarified that the territory’s goal is not to put the fire out. Rather, he said, “the objective is to keep the fire from reaching things that we don’t want it to reach.”
To do that, the one factor that fire crews have the most control over is forest fuels. Influencing these fuels often means digging them away from the front of the fire and making them wet, discouraging ignition and “guiding fire where we want it to go,” Westwick said.
On Tuesday, Westwick said the territorial fire agency was moving to direct attack on the Yellowknife fire.
“What that means is we’re putting boots on the ground,” he said in a Tuesday interview with Cabin Radio.
Direct attack is when crews take actions close to the fire itself to stop it from spreading – for instance by spraying water, applying chemicals or creating space between burned and unburned fuel to act as a control line.
Crews had previously not been able to pursue direct attack because of the fire’s intensity, Westwick said, but help from the weather and people in the air put crews in a safer position for direct attack.
Westwick said that the move is a positive development.
“Anytime that you have additional tools in the toolbox, it’s good news,” he said, adding that NWT Fire will continue to use the variety of tactics employed to fight the fire so far.
Currently, Westwick said crews are doing on-the-ground assessments to look at what would be required to move the fire to a mop-up stage – when the fire area is patrolled to check for hot spots to prevent flare-ups.
Based on infrared scanning conducted so far, Westwick said crews need to knock down the active fire and cool down the perimeter across more than 40 kilometers of “hot line” in order to eliminate the threat to Yellowknife.
On Sunday, Westwick said that gauging whether a fire’s threat to a community is reduced involves assessing where the fire is and the likelihood that it can flare back up, cause damage or progress forward.
As an example, he pointed out that the fire now threatening Yellowknife was previously a threat to Behchokǫ̀. In July, the fire destroyed 19 structures, including four homes in Rae.
“What we did in that instance was we were able to have a really defined section of fire perimeter to work with and extinguish everything in upwards of 300 feet within it,” Westwick said.
“Behind that, you have stuff that’s already burned off. So at that point, we felt confident in the fact that it was highly unlikely – nearly nil chance – that any fire was going to flare up close to that community and then potentially cause more damage and disruption there,” he went on.
The fire was not out, however. Westwick said flare-ups were still occurring a few kilometres from Behchokǫ̀ on “green islands” – areas of unburnt fuels in the charred area. The community, however, was safe.
Asked for more specifics about the extinguished area required around Yellowknife for the wildfire threat to be reduced, Westwick said on Tuesday that depends on the situation, terrain and weather, among other factors.
“You’ve got to assess the threat based on the situation that you’re in. And that’s kind of what those ground assessments are working to do – basically, to look at how much of that perimeter we need to have tied up before we can say confidently that the wildfire threat is eliminated in the area.”
Westwick said there is still a lot of work to do, adding that the terrain around Yellowknife presents an added challenge as it is difficult to work on with heavy machinery.
“In terms of setting expectations, Minister Thompson has said a number of times that people should be thinking in terms of weeks,” he said. “With more than 40 kilometers of line to work on, I have no reason to say anything different on that end.”
In the case of Behchokǫ̀’s evacuation earlier this summer, residents were told to leave the community on July 24 and allowed to return home on August 2 – nine days later.
Other evacuations in the territory this fire season have lasted anywhere from just under two weeks to up to a month. Hay River’s evacuation in May, for instance, lasted 11 days. In Sambaa K’e, meanwhile, residents were evacuated from their homes for 30 days.
During the 2016 Fort McMurray fire – which author John Vaillant previously said has some parallels to the situation in Yellowknife – residents were evacuated from May 3 to at least June 1 of that year.
Fort McMurray sustained extensive damage from the 2016 fire, with 2,400 homes and businesses destroyed. So far, the fires threatening Yellowknife have not reached the city and no damage has been reported within municipal limits.
According to Westwick, damage to a community (or the lack thereof) does not necessarily correlate with the length of an evacuation. He said there are several considerations to be taken into account, including the number of people that have to be moved and access to the community.
“There’s just so much to consider,” he said.
Reducing wildfire threats is still the priority, but territorial officials have begun planning for an orderly re-entry.
In a Tuesday Facebook post, NWT Minister Caroline Wawzonek said that “as the fire risks subside, work will begin to bring communities back online by having essential staff return first.” That would include bringing back healthcare workers, government services, groceries and other supplies, she said.
“With people now scattered across western Canada, that timing will be more complex,” she said.
In Yellowknife, she added, the airport will have to be operational. She said it would take roughly 96 hours to have the airport fully staffed and ready.
With some residents still needing to evacuate from communities threatened by wildfires, Wawzonek said the NWT’s priority is currently “for people to be out safely, not in.”