The next two weeks may present significant challenges for the Northwest Territories, according to wildfire forecasting.
The lack of rain, dry vegetation, and weather conditions are putting the territory at serious risk for dangerous fires in the coming days.
The Sahtu area, already hot and dry, is expected to be the target of lightning strikes over Monday evening — with no mitigating rainfall predicted to accompany it. Dry lightning, a phenomenon that often results from very dry surface conditions, can heighten wildfire risk considerably.
“We’ve already faced a June that was more active, in terms of wildfires, than usual,” said Mike Westwick, wildfire information officer and spokesperson for ENR. “And we’re now expecting to see record heat in the Beaufort Delta and the Sahtu, lightning outbreaks beginning in the north and moving south through the Mackenzie Valley, which is more than likely going to lead to more natural starts, and nearly no rain in any region over the next week or more.”
Not only are officials expecting to see more fires, they’re expecting those fires to burn very quickly and present more challenges for those working to bring them under control.
For now, the most serious fire in the territory remains FS008, 40 km outside of Wrigley, which has reached 5631 hectares in size. While Highway 1 has reopened and remains open, and the community is not currently at risk, ENR reports that they are continuing to work to protect cabins and homes in the area, including a homestead at Willowlake River. A controlled burn is being planned further in the northwest to limit FS008’s growth.
Just weeks ago, the GNWT predicted an ‘average’ fire season. What’s changed since then?
“I don’t know that much has changed significantly in that time,” said Westwick. “The models we had back then did predict a busier than average June and a severe July. The reality is that we’re seeing a fire season that’s actually much closer to average that what we’ve seen over the past three years, which have been below-average.”
Despite severe flooding earlier this year, weather has been arid enough that even the saturated ground along the Mackenzie in the Dehcho and South Slave region has dried out.
So far in 2022, only eight of the NWT’s 82 fires appear to be human caused, and Westwick wants to keep it that way.
“We haven’t yet figured out how to control lightning, whereas human-caused fires are completely preventable,” he said. “Avoid all fires when you’re out on the land, unless there is no other option for cooking or warmth. If you must have a fire, never, ever leave it unattended. When wood sparks escape you want to make sure there’s someone there to deal with it right away.”
Westwick recommends that anytime you leave a fire, soak it with water or sand, stir it with a shovel or stick, and repeat until the air above the fire is cool to the touch before you head out.
“Just in general, but especially in times of extreme danger like this, you’re going to want to avoid risky behaviour like tossing cigarettes on the ground or out the window of your car, leaving chains loose causing sparks on the freeway, using your ATV off trails or not cleaning the exhaust out well enough — all of that can cause sparks.”
ENR recommends everyone review their community’s emergency plan and make an emergency planning kit (FireSmart Canada’s online checklist is one place to begin to review your plan). Besides taking these crucial steps to prepare, Westwick says the best course of action is to behave mindfully over the coming days and weeks.
“Every additional fire adds to an already overburdened team.”