The Northwest Territories’ 2019 wildfire season has “the potential for extreme conditions” depending on rainfall received in the coming weeks, with snowpack levels below average in much of the territory.
That message was delivered by the territory’s manager of fire operations, Richard Olsen, at a briefing for reporters by teleconference on Monday.
The North Slave, South Slave, and Dehcho are considered most at risk if the weather remains dry.
Olsen said existing drought conditions around Great Slave Lake, combined with less precipitation than might be expected, could contribute to an increased number of fires.
“In 2018 we only had 59 fires and … just shy of 16,000 hectares burned. It was one of the slowest fire seasons on record,” Olsen told reporters.
“Within the last 10 years, two of our slowest fire seasons have occurred – and within that time, 2013, 2014, and 2015 on the edges were among the most active [fire seasons],” he said, noting research has indicated future wildfire seasons will trend toward the extremes.
Historically, the territory sees around 200 to 225 wildfires each season, burning 500,000 to 600,000 hectares on average.
Most areas of the NWT saw fairly normal snowfall up until the end of 2018, said Olsen, but there has been little significant precipitation since the new year.
During March’s heatwave, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) believes the majority of the water melted into the ground or resulted in run-off into rivers.
“At the end of March there was a little bit of a concern that we night be getting into a significant early start to the fire season,” said Olsen, noting “a few good dumps of snow” around the Yellowknife and Hay River areas had since helped bring things closer to normal.
Still, snow surveys completed at the end of March and beginning of April indicate the South Slave and Dehcho regions are well below normal levels; in Yellowknife, just below normal; and up toward Inuvik, conditions are classified as normal.
“If you recall from previous years there was a little bit of a water deficit around Yellowknife, so they do have some drying concerns,” continued Olsen.
“And even with normal snow conditions, we’re likely going to have to monitor that a little bit in terms of leaning toward abnormally dry or even drought-type conditions.”
Summarizing the outlook, Olsen said the NWT can expect a fire severity that’s “higher than normal, in the absence of any snow or precipitation,” for the remainder of May heading into June.
NWT firefighters tackle a wildfire burning south of Fort Liard in May 2018. Photo: GNWT
Whether any of the territory’s firefighting resources are activated will be reassessed this weekend.
Helicopters can be accessed fairly quickly if needed, said Olsen, but air tankers currently require 24 hours’ notice.
While much will depend on the rainfall the territory sees this spring, as of now the expectation is for June to be drier than normal in the Dehcho, North Slave, and South Slave regions, and in the areas around Great Bear Lake.
Because of the existing drought around Great Slave Lake, there is a “potential for extreme conditions,” which is expected to continue into July both around the lake and for “large portions” of the NWT, said Olsen.
These trends follow those in Northern Alberta and British Columbia.
Already, earlier this week, Alberta was forced to briefly close a highway 30 km south of High Level due to a wildfire.
Temperature-wise, Olsen said, trends show a warmer-than-normal June and July, then a return to normal in August.
In August, he said, the project severity of the fire season trends toward moderate: “There’s no indication that things will be different beyond what we normally expect,” he said.
“[We have to] be really careful with any fires that are left burning in June as there’s a good likelihood that the drought conditions will allow them to continue into July and August.”
Olsen cautioned that despite drought monitoring and precipitation predictions, “there’s no real, true indication to the number of fires we get.”
One silver lining of recent major wildfire seasons like 2013, 2014, and 2015, he said, is those areas are less likely to burn with the same intensity within the following decade.
All 2019 wildfires caused by people
Seven wildfires have been reported in the territory since January 1 – and all are suspected to have been caused by people.
On average, ENR said 20 fires are caused by people each year.
Five of the fires to date have been declared out, while the other two are being monitored.
“People were out on the land, and it was -20C or colder. But the conditions are so dry that the fires remain smouldering,” said Olsen.
The latest two fires started near the end of April or in early May – one near the foxholes area just west of Fort Smith, and the other in the town of Fort Simpson.
“People-caused fires almost always happen … in areas that they care about,” said Olsen, noting people need to be cautious not to put their properties or favourite areas at risk.
In total, just one hectare has been affected.
Crews on standby
All fire crews – except for one that starts the first week of June – are already on. In total, around 170 staff will fill fire management, seasonal, warehouse, and other positions this summer.
“In addition to that, once our refresher training is done, regions will be undertaking extra firefighter training,” said Olsen.
“We normally train an additional 200 people on average … for support for sustained action fires, and in some cases, support to warehouses or clerical staff.
To report a forest fire, you can call 1-867-698-3473. For general fire information, ENR asks that you call 1-867-445-5484.