With parts of the N.W.T. still under water, officials expect mild start to wildfire season

The ground in parts of the territory is “95 to 100 per cent” saturated as the N.W.T.’s four-month-long wildfire season gets underway.

Many forested areas with fuel are heavily saturated with water

A bonfire on Burnt Island, N.W.T., by Great Slave Lake. The 2021 wildfire season is expected to have a mild start, though what could happen after that is less clear. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

Fire officials and crews are gearing up for wildfire season, but officials predict a slow start to the season, as heavy snowfall and aggressive melt has left large parts of the territory "95 to 100 per cent" saturated by water.

Richard Olsen, the territory's manager of fire operations, said the wildfire risk in the South Slave and Dehcho is at the lowest level "for as long as most of us can remember."

"We're actually seeing that in the forest, there is standing water in a lot of areas," Olsen said. "A lot of the fuel that is available to burn is actually saturated."

Typically, hundreds of fires start each year in the N.W.T., but "it will be some time until these areas dry out."

First fire of the year was human-caused

In their first regular wildfire briefing of the year, officials broke the news that firefighters had already been called on to extinguish one fire — an abandoned campfire that counted as the first human-caused fire of the year. (Fortunately, no hectares were burned.)

While that meant the territory wasn't able to match last May's record of no human-caused fires, the month is still expected to be "below average" in terms of activity.

Olsen said June is also expected to be a quiet month for firefighters, though low snowfall in the territory's northernmost regions could mean more activity in those places.

A wildfire seen from the air near Tsiigehtchic in 2019. Climate change is making typical cycles of burn and soak in N.W.T. forests less predictable, and weather events more extreme. (Copernicus EMS/Twitter)

"The area around the Beaufort Delta and parts of the Sahtu are starting to show as abnormally dry," he said.

"We'll be keeping an eye on that as we move into the summer."

By July and August, drying out across northern Alberta and B.C. will extend into the South Slave region and the shores of Great Slave Lake, which could then start to see a greater number of fires.

Low confidence in predictions

But Olsen emphasized that those predictions should be taken with a grain of salt.

Confidence is "low to moderate" as unpredictable weather and climate change continues to stymie efforts to make predictions about the number and severity of fires.

Olsen said officials were reasonably confident they could predict a severe season at least a year in advance, based on regular cycles of burning.

The last of these cycles, which ran from 2014 to 2016, saw particularly devastating fires encroach on several northern communities.

That should mean mild seasons for at least another few years — though climate change could complicate that prediction, too.

"We may see these kinds of fire events occur more closely or … they may be more extreme," Olsen said.

Staffing up despite slow season

If 2021 is a below-average year for fires, it'll be the second slow fire season in a row, after 2020 saw just 71 fires compared to a 10-year annual average of more than 200.

"It was one of the slowest fire seasons on record," Olsen said.

Despite the low numbers and the low risk, the number of firefighters will be climbing as the territory adds three new crews and additional aircraft.

Firefighters from the N.W.T., Ontario and Wood Buffalo National Park attend a briefing near Hay River, N.W.T. in 2015. Part of the reason the territory is staffing up is to prevent the need to fly in more workers from the south if fires grow bigger. (NWT Fire)

"We want to really try and fight fires small, put them out small, so we don't have any problems with big fires and the extra work associated with them," Olsen said.

COVID-19 is another motivating factor, he said — more crews means lowering the likelihood of asking southern crews to come North.

"One large fire in the N.W.T. can easily take away a third of our firefighting resources within the N.W.T.," Olsen said. "You get two and you have a problem."

Fewer planes in the air, meanwhile, means the need for improved observation, so the territory has added a fixed-wing detection aircraft to their arsenal.

Human-caused fires still a concern

Officials are still trying to get the number of human-caused fires down, as they account for 20 per cent of wildfires.

Olsen said he was working hard at getting information on safe fire practices into schools and to community members.

In a nutshell, he advised, make a fire in a safe container or pit, and ensure it's fully extinguished before leaving.

If you come across an unattended fire, he said, report it — the territory's wildfire hotline is 1-877-NWT-FIRE.

And if you have the water necessary, he said, feel free to put it out yourself.


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