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Northwest Territories Looking at Another Record-Breaking Summer of Forest Fires

Fire crews are already experiencing fatigue and have had to take time off.

by Meagan Wohlberg
Jun 4 2015, 5:01pm

All photos of 2014 summer wildfires. All photos by the author

It usually takes at least a few months before forestry officials in the Northwest Territories start talking about firefighter fatigue, but all 28 fire crews had the last weekend of May off in order to avoid impending burnout.

The proactive measure is just one indicator that this year's fire season is shaping up to be as intense as last year's record-breaking blowout, in which 3.5 million hectares and $60 million were consumed as crews desperately tried to control an inferno previously unseen in the typically fire-ready part of Canada.

Residents were held hostage last summer by blocked highways and smoke that made air quality levels unsafe to go outside.

And this week, the territory's environment minister all but quashed any hope that things would be different this year.

"I do not wish to be the bearer of bad weather reports, but as Mother Nature may have it, and based on the reports from our meteorologist, we will once again experience drought over the summer of 2015," Environment and Natural Resources Minister Michael Miltenberger announced Monday in the NWT legislature.

Just a month into fire season, the NWT has already seen 51 fires and over 69,000 hectares burn. That's seven times the 20-year average, which would see around seven fires and approximately 5,000 hectares burned at this point of the year.

Of this year's fires, six are confirmed holdovers from last year's fires, which burned so deeply into the ground they survived the harsh northern winter to pop up in the spring.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, agreed there is "great potential" for an extremely active fire season ahead.

"We've never had this much fire activity this early, in my recollection," he said. "This is unknown territory to have fires—intense fires—in May. Usually the fire season is July."

Fire conditions extreme
It's the fourth year of a severe drought in the NWT. With no fall rains, below average snowfall over the winter, and a hot, speedy spring that broke record temperatures up and down the Mackenzie River valley, most of the southern half of the territory began the year with drought indicators already in the danger zone.

In addition to the holdovers, another 37 fires were caused by lightning that came with no rain. Some were caused by humans—likely accidental, where flames weren't extinguished enough for the tinder-dry conditions.

"That's a very good indication of how dry things are, is when a fire smolders underground over the winter and then pops up in the spring," according to Rick Olsen, fire operations manager for the NWT.

"Even starting out this spring, our drought levels, or measurements of moisture within the forest floor, in those areas [were] a lot higher than what we would normally expect," he said. "The extent of really dry areas seems to be increasing from last year."

When those kinds of pervasive dry conditions continue for that long, it makes fighting the inevitable fires that much more difficult.

"We're under the effects of a very long-term drought," said Frank Lepine, associate director of forest management with the NWT government. "When you have the kind of drought we have right now, fires will burn deep. What will normally take a crew a day or two to put out will take longer than that. It may take two crews to put the same fire out and may take three or four days. We have an increased workload for the crews on the ground and control is really difficult."

'Tornadoes of fire'
Not only are the fires burning deeper and larger than ever before, but the extreme combination of hot, dry, windy weather is causing fires to take on new characteristics that make them more dangerous for crews to extinguish.

"The drier the fuels, the more fuel burns, the more energy is released. Drier fuels, prolonged drought means the potential for very high intensity fires, which will have fire whirls, fire tornadoes, very active spread, spotting—where firebrands are carried aloft by the wind and dropped a kilometre or two in front of the fire and start a new fire," Flannigan said.

"Sometimes they're so intense, we get something called a pyroCb, which is a fire-generated thunderstorm."

Those wild conditions led to the destruction of two structures in the territory last year: a wilderness tourism lodge and a fly-in family homestead. Luckily, those were the only pieces of property consumed by the fires, which also fortunately caused no serious injuries or fatalities.

Though Flannigan, a former weather forecaster for Environment Canada, said he can't predict this summer's weather with any certainty, he said active fire seasons tend to come in "clumps" and all indications so far show this year's will be intense.

Further into the future, he said a warming world caused by climate change will likely lead to more fires. Firstly, warmer temperatures mean longer fire seasons. Warm temperatures also bring lightning, which causes the majority of fire starts in the NWT. But most importantly, he said, hot weather means rapid evaporation of moisture from vegetation, increasing the quantity of dry fuels for fires to consume. The only thing that can combat that is more rain, but while temperatures are rising, precipitation levels are not expected to follow.

"All future projections suggest we're going to get the warming, but precipitation is going to stay about the same," Flannigan said. "Not nearly enough to compensate."

New research also shows the jetstream is becoming "lazy" due to Arctic warming, causing high pressure ridge systems to "park" over areas—like the NWT last year—for long periods of time, sustaining drought.

"This is what the future may hold. I tell people that weather's really wacky, but it's going to be even wackier and crazier in the future," Flannigan said. "The crazy weather, this extreme weather, is when we get most of our fire activity. In Canada, three percent of our fires are over 200 hectares, but they burn 97 percent of the area burned."

'We're being more vigilant'
While no communities in the NWT are currently at risk, fire crews aren't taking any chances this year. All 28 Type 1 fire crews are engaged with the assistance of four air tanker crews and another 10 helicopters.

Last week, crews initiated a burnout operation—essentially using fire to fight fire by consuming dry fuels before Mother Nature can—along the only route in and out of the capital of Yellowknife.

A second fire, also near a roadway in the southwestern part of the territory, is being actioned simply because it shows the possibility of exploding into an out of control blaze like the massive complexes seen last year, which sat at communities' doorsteps for weeks and exhausted human and financial resources.

"We have been being a little more vigilant in terms of our response to some of these fires, just simply to maybe put a little work upfront to prevent a lot of work at the end of it instead," Olsen said. "We've deliberately actioned fires with the potential to grow big."

Though Sunday and Monday brought a bit of rain to the territory, that moisture is expected to be wicked away by mid-week, leaving a dry territory with above average temperatures and the chance of more lightning.

Olsen is hoping that weekend of rest has left crews refreshed.

"We're really at the beginning of the fire season, so we don't want to be overworking people, unless we absolutely have to," Olsen said. "There's a recognition from last year and previous years that individuals, just like with any exercise or exertion, become less and less effective. The more you give a person a chance to rest their mind and their body and allow them to recover and relieve the stress that comes with that position, the better they'll be able to perform the best they can without risking themselves or others."

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