Smoke from fire ZF085 rolls across Yellowknife on August 7, 2023. Photo: Angie McLellan
Smoke across parts of the NWT was so heavy on Monday that territorial officials urged people not to even try driving along certain highways.
Familiarly sickening smoke blanketed Yellowknife once again. The territorial capital’s air quality has maxed out Canada’s Air Quality Health Index – reaching “very high risk,” or what is effectively 11 out of 10 on the scale – every day since residents were allowed to return on September 6.
If you evacuated on August 16, the day the evacuation order was issued, and returned on September 6, your last 21 days in Yellowknife all involved at least some hours spent in the worst-possible air quality.
The wildfires that caused the city’s three-week evacuation still burn, and the Department of Infrastructure said travel was not recommended on parts of either Highway 3 or Highway 9 in the North Slave on Monday.
“Expect heavy smoke and poor visibility,” the department wrote on X, formerly Twitter, where posts can now only be seen if you log in to an account. “Please consider postponing non-essential travel.”
Lingering hope that, by mid-September, the Northwest Territories’ epic and devastating 2023 wildfire season would be near an end is being extinguished far faster than the fires themselves.
In a fall outlook published last week, Natural Resources Canada said “large existing fires will likely continue” in the Northwest Territories and some other parts of the country, “potentially burning well into the autumn or over the winter.”
“Wind events about a week apart appear likely for much of September and will likely continue to drive fire growth in the early part of autumn,” the outlook added.
Both the NWT and Canada as a whole are already well into their worst fire seasons on record.
Around 17 million hectares of Canada have now burned, more than double the previous record of 7.6 million hectares set in 1989. The NWT has passed four million hectares burned, more than the 3.4 million hectares that burned in 2014.
Across Canada, by the start of September, 284 separate evacuations had temporarily displaced some 232,000 people this summer alone.
A big reason for this extreme fire season, both territorially and nationally, is drought.
In 2014, Canadian drought monitoring maps did not include territorial data, so we can’t directly compare this summer with the territory’s previous worst season.
But all the analysis this summer shows the NWT entering as extreme a drought as it has known.
In a summary published at the end of August, the federal government said “pockets of extreme drought” had been recorded in the southern NWT “for the first time in Canadian Drought Monitor history.”
Abnormally dry conditions, which aren’t as bad as extreme drought but are still a significant problem, “covered nearly the entire northern region” by the end of August, the same document stated.
The wildfire outlook for the fall stated: “Extreme drought extends from central and northeast British Columbia, northern Alberta, and southern Northwest Territories, and this large area coincides with the largest number of active wildfires currently. Drought has affected all provinces and territories at some point during 2023 and is a driving factor in the large Canadian area burned.”
Rivers set records
Drought manifests itself in the NWT in many ways, beyond the presence of worse wildfires than ever.
Scientists at the territorial government say very dry conditions began in the summer and fall of 2022 and have carried on, unbroken, into September this year.
Because so many river basins are so dry, a water monitoring bulletin published by the GNWT last week states, any rain that does fall is first “filling up” the soil, wetlands and ponds, without ever necessarily reaching larger rivers and lakes.
Hay River, Fort Smith and Yellowknife have all reported less than a quarter of their normal rainfall in the past three months, the Canadian Drought Monitor states. Rivers and lakes that were already struggling for water are receiving nearly no fresh runoff.
“In general, water levels across the NWT are extremely low, and in some cases the lowest on record for the time of year,” the water monitoring bulletin reported.
Here are some examples of records that are being set:
Great Slave Lake is at its lowest-ever water level for this time of year, having been at a record high (for the time of year) as recently as June 2022;
in the South Slave and Dehcho, water levels are at their lowest on record for the time of year on the Hay River, Kakisa River, Trout River, Jean Marie River, Petitot River and Liard River;
portions of the Mackenzie River, such as at Tsiigehtchic, are at their lowest on record for the time of year;
in the North Slave, the Snare River and Coppermine River are at their lowest on record for the time of year, with many other rivers well below normal; and
the Sahtu’s Hare Indian River is at its lowest on record for the time of year, with Great Bear Lake’s water level well below normal.
Only in some parts of the Dehcho and Beaufort Delta, where reasonable quantities of rain have fallen this summer, are records not being set.
Around Great Slave Lake, especially, you could be forgiven for feeling watery whiplash.
“Over the last five years, water levels on Great Slave Lake have shifted from extremely low (July 2019) to the highest on record (2020 to 2022) back to extremely low (July 2023),” the NWT government’s hydrologists state in their water monitoring bulletin.
“The magnitude and frequency of these fluctuations have not previously been seen in the 88-year record.”
The bulletin ascribes those shifts to “large weather systems that have moved over the entirety of the Great Slave Lake basin, which includes sub-basins in northern BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and NWT.”
“While it is difficult to isolate individual events,” the bulletin continues, “these weather systems are likely a combination of climate variability from global teleconnections (La Niña and El Niño events) and climate change.”
The current drought, an expectation of a relatively warm September, and a lack of meaningful rain in the forecast suggest there’s not likely to be an imminent end to the NWT’s fires, nor the smoke-filled days.
As multiple experts and authorities have warned in recent weeks, only the winter onset of snow is likely to terminate the visible impacts of this fire season. Even then, some fires will probably continue to smoulder beneath the snowpack.
Correction: September 18, 2023 – 14:32 MT. A list in this article initially misstated the locations of some rivers. The Hay River, Kakisa River, Trout River, Jean Marie River, Petitot River and Liard River aren’t purely in the South Slave – that list includes several rivers most closely associated with the Dehcho.