Fewer human-caused fires helped below-average 2021 NWT season
The Northwest Territories’ 2021 wildfire season came to a close at the end of September, marking the fourth slower-than-average season in a row.
The territory saw 139 fires burn 144,680 hectares in 2021. Over the past 20 years, the NWT has seen an average of 210 fires burning 191,000 hectares per year.
Of the 139 fires in 2021, 17 were caused by people. Seventy-three required action from Department of Environment and Natural Resources firefighters.
Richard Olsen, the NWT’s manager of fire operations, said 10 percent more fires required action than would usually be the case.
“Even though the fire numbers and area burned are relatively low, we do have some areas of the NWT that – because of the dry conditions and the type of weather that we experienced this summer – required us to really put a lot of significant effort in,” Olsen told reporters on Wednesday.
“So while there were fewer fires, there was still a significant amount of work undertaken.”
The NWT also sent staff to six other jurisdictions to help fire management efforts.
This summer saw heat warnings issued across the NWT and record-breaking temperatures – ingredients for dangerous fire conditions, said ENR spokesperson Mike Westwick.
“We went through quite a few long, hot weekends without any human-caused fires, which is a big one. And things could have turned out very differently,” Westwick said.
The 17 human-caused fires represent 12 percent of the NWT’s wildfires for the year, down from 26 percent last year. Typically, that figure is 15 to 20 percent each summer.
Olsen said the water-saturated South Slave was a big reason why there were fewer fires than normal this season. Ordinarily, the South Slave sees 70 to 80 fires caused by lightning. This year, there were only nine.
Overall, the South Slave had just 11 fires burning 6,881 hectares.
The season was similarly slow in Wood Buffalo National Park – which covers an area larger than Switzerland – where just three fires burned under 70 hectares. Parks Canada is responsible for managing fires in the national park, which are counted separately.
It was also an unusual year in the dry Beaufort Delta region, said Olsen, where 36 fires burned 44,017 hectares.
The North Slave had 44 fires, the Dehcho region had 29, and the Sahtu 19.
Colder winter forecast for western NWT
It’s getting more difficult to predict what a fire season will look like due to the changing climate, Olsen had said in an earlier briefing.
Fire forecasting involves “a lot of assumptions based on what’s happened before,” he told reporters this spring, but changing weather patterns are making it more difficult to make those assumptions.
Long-term forecasting for the winter and the 2022 fire season is a work in progress, Olsen said.
Right now, it’s still wet in the South Slave – trees and bush are still saturated with moisture – while the Dehcho, North Slave, and portions of Sahtu are considered normal for this time of year.
The Beaufort Delta, though, is different.
“When we look at the Beaufort Delta, we’re seeing drought codes that we would normally only see after periods of long drought,” said Olsen.
“Without significant precipitation and overwinter snow, it’s very likely that we’ll see those kinds of conditions continue into the spring for next year.”
Olsen said forecasted higher precipitation in the Yukon and British Columbia may extend into the Dehcho and Beaufort Delta, helping to saturate the forest.
“Environment Canada is indicating that the warmer temperatures we’re enjoying this fall in large portions of the NWT are going to disappear as we get into late November, December, and January,” said Olsen, “with below-normal temperatures for portions of the western NWT, and probably along the average for central NWT.
“It’s looking like there might be elevated heat temperatures as you move toward Nunavut and Eastern Canada.”