Forest fire expert says N.W.T. may be in for lots more smoke and flame

Bad fire seasons usually occur in clumps, says Mike Flannigan, a professor in the University of Alberta's Renewable Resources department.

'It's Mother Nature doing her job,' Mike Flannigan says

Tyrone Sanguez posted this photo he took of the fire near Jean Marie River, N.W.T., on Facebook before he joined the community's voluntary evacuation last summer. (Tyrone Sanguez/Facebook)

A record fire year in the Northwest Territories in 2014 may not be an isolated occurrence, according to a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who is an expert on forest fires.

Historically, bad fire years are caused by conditions that may last for several years, Mike Flannigan said.

"They often come in clumps," he said.

"So if 2014 is the first year of a clump, you know, I wouldn't be surprised to see a bad fire year either this year, next year or the year after." Flannigan said. "I would expect one or two more bad fire years in the next three or four years."

He said hot, dry, windy weather contributes to a bad fire season. There also has to be ignition, which in the North is mostly lightning, and finally there has to be fuel.

"The ground and all the fuels in the ground, the organic material, the peat, dries out and when the fire gets down in there, the fire can smoulder for months, even years," Flannigan said.

"I believe there's still a couple of fires burning in the Northwest Territories right now because it's down in the peat," he said.

Fire 'resets the clock'

Flannigan said some of those fires may pop up again this spring or summer, but adds that forest fires are a natural part of boreal forests.

"You know, it's Mother Nature doing her job, and whether it's good or bad is a value decision," said Flannigan.

"I like to think it's good for the forest, it removes disease, kills insects, and resets the clock, regeneration."

Flannigan said however, if communities are threatened they have to be protected.

Although the fires in 2014 made the kind of season people might blame on climate change, Flannigan said it cannot be proved.

The fires last summer forced the evacuation of one community, threatened the territory's hydro-electric system and burned one family home. The government spent $55 million fighting the blazes, about eight times more than it had budgeted.


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