In 2017, wildfires burned 860,000 hectares in the Northwest Territories. That figure so far this summer? 11,591 hectares.

Put another way, the 2018 wildfire season to date has been 1.35 percent as bad as last year’s. It has barely registered.

There is still time for damaging wildfires to strike the territory, but fire activity from May to August has come nowhere near experts’ initial forecasts for the season – which did not anticipate a summer of extraordinarily wet conditions across much of the NWT.

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At the moment there are 13 wildfires burning in the territory, all of which are being monitored and are not considered a threat. The total for the whole season has been 55 fires, compared with 262 the previous year.

The difference is not just the number of fires; it’s their size.

Wildfires in the summer of 2014, which was the territory’s worst fire season in living memory, are now estimated to have consumed 2.85 million hectares of land (down from earlier estimates of more than 3 million hectares).

By comparison, 2018’s fire footprint is a fraction of a fraction – just 0.4 percent of the 2014 total. Individual wildfires in 2014 were three times the size of the entire area burned in 2018 to date.

A stunning chart published by Natural Resources Canada shows just how lightly the Northwest Territories has been touched by a wildfire season responsible for devastation on a large scale in other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia.

A graph produced by Natural Resources Canada shows how minimal the NWT's 2018 fire season has been
A graph produced by Natural Resources Canada shows how minimal the NWT’s 2018 fire season has been.

Firefighters based in the Northwest Territories, facing comparatively little action at home, have spent their summer being exported elsewhere as provinces like BC and Ontario battle significantly worse-than-average conditions.

The near-total absence of significant wildfires between May and August contrasts markedly with the expectations of the territory’s experts as they entered the season.

In May, NWT fire operations manager Richard Olsen said he expected increasing fire severity as the summer progressed.

“Generally speaking, it looks like we have some very, very dry conditions east of Yellowknife and east of Fort Smith,” said Olsen at the time. “We’re expecting fairly vigorous fire behaviour once the frost and snow completely kicks out of the ground.”

Cyclical severity

Assuming the 2018 season remains quiet – August is ordinarily considered the month in which wildfire danger begins to diminish – there could be both positive and negative consequences for the NWT.

Financially, the territory is almost certain to come in under budget for the season given the lack of fires requiring action.

Conversely, a year of regrowth across the territory could leave it more vulnerable to a seriously damaging future fire season if 2019’s summer is hotter and drier.

Wildfire season severity appears cyclical in territorial data stretching back to the 1970s.

The territory experiences significantly quieter fire seasons once every four to five years on average, with the nine-year period from 2009’s quiet season representing an unusually long spell of consistently busy fire seasons.

Only 2009, in the past four decades, produced fewer wildfires than 2018’s fire season to date. That summer, according to a report from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, just 2,000 hectares burned in 42 fires across the NWT – while BC again suffered an extraordinarily damaging year.