Forest fires a worry for 2017 after 'problematic and concerning' lack of N.W.T. snow

Environment and Climate Change Canada warns another bad forest fire season could hit the Northwest Territories without substantial snowfall this coming spring.

January forecast to remain dry as meteorologists look ahead to spring snowfall

Preliminary North Slave data for 2016 shows a fourth straight year of below-average precipitation, alongside higher-than-normal fall temperatures. (Erik White/CBC )

Another dry year for the Northwest Territories could mean a severe forest fire season in 2017.

Preliminary North Slave data for 2016 shows a fourth straight year of below-average precipitation — water falling as rain and snow — alongside higher-than-normal fall temperatures.

Combined, those conditions have led to low levels of snow across much of the territory.

"The fact that we have a limited snowpack now is problematic and concerning," said Brian Proctor, an Environment and Climate Change Canada meteorologist.

"When we have these limited snowpacks persisting into the late winter and early spring season, we often get really bad forest fire seasons."

No respite

On December 30, measurements showed 19 cm of snow on the ground in Yellowknife. That contrasts with 32 cm at the same time in 2015 and 29 cm in 2014.

A firefighter fights a forest fire near Kakisa, N.W.T. in 2015. In the territory, 188 recorded forest fires burned 229,000 hectares this past season. (Courtesy of Linda Croft)

December 2013, which preceded the territory's worst-ever summer of forest fires, concluded with 22 cm of snow in the city.

Yellowknife's data is the most complete available. Data for Inuvik shows a similar fall in precipitation, but precipitation totals for Hay River increased year-on-year.

Proctor expects dry weather to persist across the N.W.T. for most of January.

He added that moisture levels in the ground — and, consequently, the risk of dry conditions leading to forest fires — are likely to depend on how much snow falls, and sticks, in February, March and April.

Problems for skiers, trappers

The final figure for Yellowknife precipitation in 2016 is expected to fall some 40 mm below the long-term annual average of 272.1 mm.

Each of the last four years has produced lower-than-average precipitation in the North Slave, with 2013-2016 now the driest four-year period for the region since the early 1990s.

"In combination with that dryness, it's been quite a bit warmer than we would normally expect," said Proctor.

"That means whatever snowpack we've had has largely been reduced down by sublimation processes [snow turning into fog or steam]."

Last week, trail groomers at the Yellowknife Ski Club warned online of "many rocks at or near the surface" of the city's ski trails "due to lack of snow so far this season."

Meanwhile, Beaufort Delta trappers have reported difficulties operating in areas with minimal snow coverage.

However, Proctor cautions against assumptions about the nature of the dry spell.

"The last four years have been drier, but the four years before that were above the long-term average, so I wouldn't necessarily attribute this to climate change," he said.

"It might be more attributable just to the variability we've seen from a climatic point of view in the area."

The 2016 forest fire season, which saw significant April snowfall in some areas, was substantially calmer than either 2014 or 2015.

In the N.W.T., 188 recorded forest fires burned 229,000 hectares this past season; by comparison, 2014 saw 385 wildfires destroy 3.4 million hectares of forest.