In a season-opening briefing on Monday, wildfire operations manager Richard Olsen said this past winter was long and only now – with April over – is snow starting to disappear.
Some time in May, Olsen expects conditions to flip from winter to spring and summer “almost like a light switch.”
He says the few weeks after the snowmelt, when trees and grass haven’t greened up, are a prime time for fires as there is little moisture in the bush.
“As we get into June there are indications and support from the models … that June is really going to be an above average-type of potential fire severity month for the NWT,” said Olsen.
Any May or June fires that aren’t hampered by rain or lack of fuel are likely to burn into July and August.
Rainfall forecasts can help gauge the fire season into July and August, but Olsen said those more distant projections are ordinarily less accurate.
Olsen said models currently forecast the potential for above-average to extreme conditions later in the summer.
As in recent years, drought conditions still persist around Great Slave Lake, despite there being average to above-average snow conditions this past winter.
The Hay River, Fort Simpson, and Fort Liard areas can continue to expect drought conditions, putting them most at risk if the weather stays dry.
There have been no fires this season so far.
Historically, there are between 200 to 225 wildfires in the NWT each year, burning 500,000 to 600,000 hectares on average. Last year, 146 fires burned just over 110,000 hectares.
How Covid-19 changed wildfire preparation
The Covid-19 pandemic adds another layer of risk to the NWT’s fire season.
Olsen has been planning ways to cope with situations like fires that need a significant number of people on the ground, making physical distancing rules hard to follow.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) will take action on all fires that threaten lives or property, but there will be a stronger focus this summer on ensuring fires don’t start or spread.
Olsen says an increase in preventative measures could reduce the extra pandemic-related problems brought on by things like heavy smoke, a need for imported fire crews, or evacuations.
In the NWT, approximately 15 to 20 percent of wildfires are caused by people. While this is far lower than in other jurisdictions – where 50 percent of fires or more are human-caused – Olsen said “any person-caused fire is a problem, because it was preventable.”
A territorial government image of a wildfire northwest of Yellowknife in July 2019. Crews will this year more aggressively attack fires to limit smoke.
The goal is to have zero person-caused fires this year. The department is working on a campaign and activities to help residents prevent wildfires.
“In order for that to really, truly be achieved, it’s going to rely on all the people in the NWT to be very, very careful with any fire that they light – for cooking, cleaning, or for whatever purpose,” said Olsen.
Residents must, he said, “make absolutely sure they are putting it in an area that’s not going to spread and make absolutely sure, when they leave, that the fire is 100-percent out.”
While the NWT is not banning fires yet – other jurisdictions have implemented near province-wide fire bans as part of their Covid-19 strategy – the territory will consider fire bans or permits to burn if necessary.
This year’s strategy
In keeping with its focus on prevention, ENR plans to be more proactive than usual in not letting fires get too big when there is a chance they could threaten communities or properties.
“One of the biggest strategies we’re really going to try to enforce this year is to really look at the intention of limiting these large fires on the landscape,” Olsen said.
While ENR doesn’t want to interfere with what it says is the natural and necessary role fire plays, staff will err more on the side of caution this year.
“[We’ll] really look at these fires that I would say are kind-of on the edge of where we may have normally let them grow naturally, without interfering on their growth,” said Olsen.
“If we think there’s going to be any kind of risk to a community – that might force us either to [recommend] an evacuation or require significant resources – we’re going to be a little more aggressive on those kinds of fires, with the intent of having a successful initial attack and eliminating the risk in the first place.”
The department has 31 four-person fire crews hired plus staff in other positions. An additional 200 or so people trained in basic firefighting will be available on-call.
Once four-person crews are together, they will stay together: they’ll be isolated from other crews and communities, they’ll stay in the bush, and their meals will be delivered separately instead of buffet-style.
All staff are monitoring themselves for Covid-19 symptoms daily and following protocols for self-isolation, physical distancing, and cleaning. Smaller class sizes are being used in training and the number of people in offices, standby facilities, and warehouses is limited.
How firefighter sharing agreements with other jurisdictions will work during the pandemic is being figured out. A plan is expected by the end of this week.
Lack of flights hampers fire detection
Wildfire smoke could complicate things this summer with pandemic restrictions still in place.
A recent article from The Narwhal examined how decreased air quality from wildfires can in turn make people more vulnerable to Covid-19 complications. Experts in British Columbia predict wildfire smoke will increase the province’s coronavirus death rate.
While the NWT can’t control smoke blowing in from other territories or countries, fires in remote areas of the territory will see more aggressive action this summer.
Firefighters will look to step in and limit growth, cutting the amount of smoke generated and helping to protect communities from the increased risk.
Meanwhile, the slump in commercial aviation and chartered flights during the pandemic means fewer people will be in the air to notice new fires. As a result, Olsen said ENR will modify its detection strategy.
The department will put more eyes in the sky watching for fires that need action.
While plans aren’t fully finalized, the department is also looking at increasing its ability to bring on additional crews and aircraft as necessary.