North

'Be extra careful' in the bush right now, warn Yukon wildfire experts

Warm temperature records across Yukon for the last few weeks has resulted in the snow melting early. Wildlife experts say this is a time that calls for extra caution.

Period between the snow disappearing and new spring growth is a dangerous time for wildfires

Chad Thomas, left, is CEO of Yukon First Nations Wildfire, a firefighting contract company that's owned and operated by eight Yukon First Nations. Wayne Risby, right, is the company's initial attack resource officer. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Wildland fire experts are warning Yukoners to be extra careful right now, before leaves and grasses start growing.

The territory has experienced an unusually early spring, with record-setting temperatures in the last few weeks. That means the snow has disappeared early, leaving the bush extra vulnerable to wildfire.

Chad Thomas is the chief executive officer of Yukon First Nations Wildfire, a First Nations owned and operated company that provides firefighting contract services.

Wayne Risby is the initial attack resource officer with the company. 

There's 47 years experience of fighting forest fires between the two of them.

Wildfire experts say ground fuel is a hazard that is more of a problem before new undergrowth appears in the spring. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Thomas said while there's no way to predict the coming fire season, right now, ground fuel on the forest floor is especially susceptible to fire.

"History shows it's a more volatile environment in a pre-green stage, so there's not as much moisture in the fine fuels. So if a wildfire does decide to come through and we got one early, it would be particularly more dangerous than a fire in June or July," said Thomas.

Thomas added that the moisture content in all new growth makes it harder for the fire to sustain itself. 

Risby said spruce forests "are more volatile" than jack pine stands because spruce boughs go right to the ground. 

He said regardless of the type of forest, old dead trees on the floor create problems.

"A lot of ground fuel would start up, 'blow down' would start up, and that could potentially lead from the ground up the ladder of the tree into the ladder fuel, which could go into the canopy," Risby said, in a process known as "crowning."

Wildfire experts Chad Thomas and Wayne Risby warn that the 'green-up' period, when snow disappears but there's no new growth, is a particularly dangerous time. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

Thomas says FireSmarting around communities is the best protection, although he points out that once trees in an area have been thinned out and the ground fuel collected, the work isn't over. 

"You have to sustain and upkeep the FireSmart areas. You can't just do a FireSmart on an area, and keep moving on to other ones," said Thomas.

"You have to constantly treat it, you have to maintain it with prescribed burns, which we don't do much of here in the Yukon." 

Risby said although its not visible, there is some moisture in the ground because there's still frost underneath. 

"The top half inch is certainly dry, but underneath it, we've still got frozen ground," said Risby. "So there's a lot of water still to be released from the ground."

Risby said it's too early to predict whether the territory will have a bad year for wildfires.

"It's hard to predict that right now. We'll find out more once it comes to June and July." 

Risby said people must be extra careful before what's known as "green-up."

"You know there might be people out making themselves some tea or something like that with a small fire and not extinguishing it properly." 

He said even people out in the bush on their ATVs and motor bikes need to be vigilant. 

"The exhaust pipe could also cause a problem, I know it seems like it's a little far-fetched but it does happen and it could easily happen at this time of year," said Risby. 

"If you're not really watching what you're doing, it could leave a spark behind that the wind could pick up and it could start something." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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