Extreme fire conditions have arrived in the N.W.T., and could last until fall

A wildfire burns near Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., in a file photo from June 30, 2020. (NWT Fire/Facebook - image credit)
A wildfire burns near Behchokǫ̀, N.W.T., in a file photo from June 30, 2020. (NWT Fire/Facebook - image credit)

People in the Northwest Territories can expect a spring and summer of extreme fire danger that could last well into the fall.

That's the message of the first wildfire briefing of the season, offered by Richard Olsen, who manages fire operations for the N.W.T.'s department of Environment and Climate Change.

He said the hot, dry spring is already visible in parts of the territory, where snow has disappeared earlier than usual and plants are already turning green near the southern border.

"The weather forecast seems to be consistent … that for most of the N.W.T. we're gonna see hot dry conditions throughout June, July and into August," Olsen said.

In contrast, the same forecast suggests people in the Sahtu and the Beaufort-Delta region could see below-normal temperatures and above average precipitation.

Olsen worked with a staff meteorologist and federal data sources to come up with the prediction.

He says a large part of the N.W.T. will be under extreme fire conditions for the remainder of May and well into June, particularly the area around Great Slave Lake and parts of the South Slave and Dehcho.

It's also possible the fire season will once again be unseasonably late, as it was last year, with fires burning well into October, though Olsen said different forecast models produced different predictions.

Crews on the ground

In anticipation of a busy season, some fire crews are already at work, checking for fires that have been smouldering throughout the winter.

The full complement of crews and aircraft will be in place by mid-May, Olsen said.

That includes 34 four-person crews, for a total of about 136 firefighters, as well as about 100 dedicated support staff. Olsen said there are another 200 or so firefighters available within the territory who can be brought in to fight major fires.

As for just how bad the summer might be, Olsen was sanguine.

"We live in a fire environment, so it's important to note to people that we'll always get fires, and if they're in the wrong spot, even in a quiet year, it still might be a bad fire for an individual or community," he said.

Nonetheless, he said some of the science and monitoring is pointing towards drought-like conditions — enough that memories of 2014, the worst forest fire season in recent memory in the territory, have "popped up" in conversation.

"We're definitely cognizant and aware and considering that in our preparations."