2014 N.W.T. fire season report: What you need to know

The N.W.T. has put out a report on how it could have handled 2014's record fires better. From better communication to more firefighter support, we break down what you need to know from the report.

Look back highlights need for better communication, more firefighter support

Warm, sunny days and the driest conditions in 40 years brought fires, smoke and evacuations to the Northwest Territories last year. The territorial government has released a report detailing its response, as well as what it can do better in the future. (Adrian Skok/Plummer's Lodge)

As the N.W.T. heads into its next wildfire season, the territory has put out a report on how it could have handled 2014's record fires better.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources conducted open houses in 24 communities in developing the report, and consulted with aboriginal and community governments and industry, among others.

The report can be read in its entirety on the Government of the Northwest Territories' website, but here's what you need to know:

2014 season was truly massive

For those who lived in the Northwest Territories during last summer's forest fire season, it's hardly surprising to hear that the it reached historic levels in terms of size and cost incurred. However, the report includes some truly startling numbers.
A map showing the forest fire forecast for May 2015. Forest fires are expected to burn hot and dry as early as May this season. (Canadian Wildland Fire Information System)

In 2014, 385 fires burned in the territory — 57 per cent more than average. They were fought at a cost of $56.1 million, including $24 million on aircraft and nearly $7 million on personnel, and burned 3.4 million hectares of forest land.

In comparison, based on 20-year averages, in a regular year the N.W.T. experiences about 245 fires affecting 570,000 hectares of land, and the firefighting budget is about $7.5 million.

According to the report, 259 of those 385 fires in 2014 necessitated a "monitored response" by the territorial government, and 126 fires, or about a third of the total, were actioned. The government also undertook 93 "value protection operations" on private property, including cabins and lodges. Two of those were deemed "significant losses."

Despite the scale of last year's fires, there were no serious injuries or deaths. However the report says guidelines need to be developed to address firefighter stress and fatigue during longer-than-usual deployments. 

Better communication

The first priority outlined in the government's report is the need to improve its ability to provide updates to communities on the status of nearby fires.

Some of the measures it plans to take are public service announcements, an improved website, a dedicated communications officer, a heavier presence on social media, and translation of fire signage into aboriginal languages. According to the report, the territorial government has already finished translation in the Tlicho language for this season, and will have other languages completed in 2016.

There is a public expectation ENR will be able to protect all property, all all times, which simply isn't possible in an extreme fire season.- Government of the Northwest Territories 2014 NWT Fire Season Review Report

The report also highlighted a need for the government to better communicate its fire management priorities to the public.

"There is a public expectation ENR will be able to protect all property, at all times which simply isn't possible in an extreme fire season," the report says.

The department needs to explain to leaders and residents how it allocates resources, where "the protection of human life takes precedence over all other values." 

The report says many communities and property owners need to accept more responsibility to help in protecting their property and that ENR needs to assist communities in reducing their risks, through promotion of the FireSmart program and through public information sessions.

More firefighter crews, relief

A common thread running through the document is the need for additional personnel to handle large wildfire seasons such as last summer's.

According to the report, the territorial government was planning on implementing personnel changes prior to 2014, but was unable to due to contracts in place, as well as the larger-than-expected scope of the season.
Government employees train to be type 3 wildland fire crew members in August of 2014. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources put out a call for employees with experience fighting wildfires to volunteer their skills during last summer's historic burn. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC News )

Currently, the territorial government has 28 five-person firefighting crews at its disposal. The report proposes changing the configuration to 36 four-person crews in the future, adding four more firefighters, total, as well as increasing the number of available crews by about 20 per cent.

The government is also examining how it supplements its dedicated fire crews. Existing contracts to provide firefighting crews with contractors are in their final option year, and the government will conduct a review of their effectiveness before making decisions on renewal.

ENR is also developing a pool of other GNWT employees with fire experience or relevant skill sets it can draw upon when its own resources are tapped out. Last year, the government made a call for properly trained employees due to the scope of the season, and, according to the report, those identified last year will form the nucleus of the reserve list.