Facing tinder dry conditions, N.W.T. preps for busy fire season

A dry fall, and little snowfall sets the N.W.T. up for a potentially busy fire season, with 5 person-caused fires already on the books as early as January.

The territory has already seen 7 person-caused fires in 2019, compared to an annual average of 20.

Scorched earth marks where forest fires had burned near Kakisa, N.W.T. in 2014. That year was one of the worst fire seasons on record. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Fire officials in the Northwest Territories are preparing for a busy forest fire season, despite last summer's cool, wet conditions.

Richard Olsen, who co-ordinates the fire-fighting program across the territory, says last season was a record quiet year for firefighters.

That's expected to change this year because of dry weather in the fall of 2018, and limited snowfall over the winter.

7 person-caused fires in 2019 

Already, the territory has seen a worrying number of person-caused fires, five of which started just after Jan. 1.

"Normally we have around 20 person-caused fires a year. We're sitting at seven already and we're just getting into the person-caused period of the year," Olsen said.

Olsen says it's an indication of just how dry the conditions are and how careful people have to be with fires.

"People were out on the land, it was –20 C if not colder, they lit fires to keep warm but conditions were so dry that the fires remained smouldering."

Seven fires caused by people have been reported this year, five of them just after Jan. 1.

Some of those smouldering areas were "reportedly as large as someone's house."

Person-caused fires are preventable, Olsen said, and they're a big concern, because they start where people are: near cabins, traplines and other valuable infrastructure and property.

Preparing for a busy fire season

Snow surveys and water monitoring suggest a busy fire season.

Olsen says conditions are currently drier than normal in the area around Great Slave Lake and into the Dehcho and the For Liard valley area.

Conditions in the Sahtu and Inuvik regions conditions are normal to above normal.

A lot depends on spring rains, but Olsen says conditions are expected to get drier and hotter.

"Within the N.W.T., for May, they're kind of estimating the fire severity would be high or higher than normal and as we get into June, it's starting to look like we might get into high or very high type conditions."

Air support standing by

Olsen says fire crews are finishing up fitness and refresher training and all but one crew, which comes online in June, is ready to go. 

New recruits getting safety training in 2014. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

He says they could bring on fire-fighting helicopters quickly and that water tanker aircraft would be ready to go with 24-hours notice.

Fire prevention

Olsen says it's the time of year when people often get fire permits to burn vegetation. Even with a permit, he suggests people consider waiting until things "really green up" and having water and tools on hand to extinguish any fires.

"For the most part where the snow is gone, it is just one big dry mat of grass ... that's essentially going to act like paper, and a whole, whole bunch of paper. People need to really, really be careful about that and the fact that under just a little bit of wind that can move quickly."

Olsen offered some reminders for people who have to start a fire to cook or keep warm:

  • Pick an area that's free from vegetation.
  • Use rocks or clear down to the mineral soil to prevent the fire from spreading into the forest.
  • Make sure your fire is totally out: Dig into the ashes, wet the fire, stir it up and wet it again.


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