The Northwest Territories’ fire operations manager gave his first forecast for the upcoming wildfire season in a call with reporters on Monday afternoon.

Richard Olsen said a dry spring and slightly below-average snow cover would most likely mean a normal start to the season but increased fire severity as the summer progresses.

“Generally speaking, it looks like we have some very, very dry conditions east of Yellowknife and east of Fort Smith,” said Olsen, adding conditions are also dry around Fort Good Hope, Fort Liard, and Fort Simpson.

“We’re expecting fairly vigorous fire behaviour once the frost and snow completely kicks out of the ground.

“As we progress through the season, [the chance of] more severe fires in a larger area seems to extend over most of the South Slave, North Slave, Dehcho, and up into portions of the Sahtu.”

The pattern described by Olsen is similar to last summer’s NWT fire season, when 262 fires burned an area of around 860,000 hectares – equivalent to just under a third of Great Slave Lake’s surface area.

That number of fires is about 20 percent higher than the 20-year average for the territory. Last year’s season was characterized by a quiet start, followed by large fires around Fort Good Hope in July, then a heatwave in August which led to 80 percent of the year’s burn.

“[That happened at] a time when we would traditionally be expecting things to be on a kind of downturn,” said Olsen. “It really did indicate there was an extension of the season for burning last year.”

‘Fairly confident’

The year 2017 was the NWT’s fifth warmest and 40th driest of the last 70 years, Olsen said. Data suggests the territory has experienced a relatively dry winter, which increases the odds of more vigorous fires in the summer.

“There was some indication over the winter that portions of the NWT were showing abnormally dry conditions,” said Olsen, though he said those figures had recently shifted back toward a more normal outlook. Even so, dry conditions persist in southern Alberta and may affect wildfire season in the southern region of the territory.

“We were average to below average for the amount of snow cover in the NWT,” Olsen continued. “There was nothing of significance that really looks like it has wetted down the forest.”

Wildland fire crews began their spring training on Monday, and staff are now preparing the territory’s helicopters and air tankers for the new season. The NWT’s staffing for the season is essentially the same as it was in 2017.

“Overall, we’re fairly confident in the resources we have in place and our ability to bring additional resources on nationally,” said Olsen, referring to an arrangement whereby provinces and territories pool their firefighting resources during the summer.

“We’re fairly comfortable with what we’ve prepared for right now.”

Campers are already advised to be very careful when using campfires, to set them well away from the surrounding forest, and make sure fires are completely out before leaving a site.

If you’re interested in becoming a wildland firefighter, there are still some testing sessions remaining.

Sessions take place in Hay River on May 9 and 10, Inuvik on May 15, and Yellowknife on May 17 and 18.