North

Yukon's fire season was one of most 'complex and challenging' in years

The director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management says firefighters had quite a summer, as conditions seem to be changing in the territory.

'We do see this evidence of climate change,' says director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management

Smoke from a nearby wildfire is visible from Haines Junction in May. 'I would describe this fire season as one of our most complex and challenging fire seasons in the last 15 years,' said the director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Damien Burns, the director of Yukon Wildland Fire Management, says firefighters in Yukon had quite a summer this year — and that conditions are changing in the territory.

"We do see this evidence of climate change," he said. "We do expect longer seasons, more intense weather events, and more severe, faster-moving fires."

Not all fires are out, but the fire season in Yukon is regarded as officially over. In all, there were 177 wildfires across the territory, burning about 2,800 square kilometres.

"I would describe this fire season as one of our most complex and challenging fire seasons in the last 15 years," Burns said.

Fires near Haines Junction and Dawson City had some residents on edge, and some communities were under evacuation alerts. Many communities got used to persistent smoke in the air. Highways were occasionally closed, a campground was evacuated, and many communities were under a fire ban at some point over the summer.

Many Yukon communities saw lots of smoke this summer, usually from fires in Yukon or Alaska. This was a smoke forecast in May. (FireSmoke.ca)

The season also extended well into September, with a large fire near Stewart Crossing and Mayo growing fast enough to prompt a week-long evacuation alert in the area. 

Burns says he doesn't know yet how much the government spent this year on wildfires, but expects the final number will be "quite high."

More human-caused fires

Thirty-five fires were human-caused. That represents a significant increase over past years, and Burns says it's disappointing.

"It's the campfire ones that we really get disappointed in people about. They are 100 per cent preventable if people just remember to practice good campfire safety," he said. 

Another challenge this year was what he called "drought codes," or the long-term drying of forest fuels.

"That's what really causes that very aggressive fire behaviour that we saw, and allows fires to burn so intensely and aggressively," he said.

The Pigue Creek fire, as seen from the bank of the Stewart River just outside Stewart Crossing on July 9. The fire created smoky conditions for Dawson City residents and threatened the North Klondike highway. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

Last month's fire near Mayo also generated a rare pyrocumulus cloud, which he describes as a smoke column that grows big enough and hot enough to start shooting lightning.

"It rare to happen even in July and August in Yukon, when when we would expect the hottest and driest conditions. So to see it occurring in September is certainly something that we're going to study," he said.

Firefighters are having to adapt to changing conditions, he said. Officials hope to develop community wildfire protection plans, to manage forest fuels and lessen the potential risk.

Written by Paul Tukker, with files from Elyn Jones

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