NWT may have an ‘average’ wildfire season, says environment department

There have been more wildfires so far this year compared to the 10-year average in the Northwest Territories, but the season will likely shape up to be average, says Richard Olsen, manager of fire operations with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“All in all, it looks like in comparison to the last three or four years, we’re getting into what I would call an average fire season,” he said, “with the potential for some significant drying, potential extreme fires around Great Slave Lake again.”

But the total area burned so far is “well below” the average area burned for this time of year.

So far, there have been 36 fires in the territory affecting 6,119 hectares of land, with 17 wildfires declared out. That’s compared to the 10-year average of about 35 wildfires, Olsen said, affecting about 23,000 hectares.

Nineteen wildfires were burning in the NWT as of Monday, Olsen said. The most recent fire started in the past 24 hours.

A screen grab of the current NWT fire map from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’s website. It displays the total wildfires this year — both active and out. (NWT Environment and Natural Resources)

The active wildfires all appear to have been caused by lightning, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

There were also a few people-caused wildfires this year that have since been put out. Those fires are under investigation still, Olsen said.

“We always like to remind people that in summer, don’t let your campfires become wildfires and ensure your fires are completely out before leaving,” he said.

The largest fire still currently burning is about 55 kilometers southeast of Fort Resolution and is about 250 hectares in size. The ENR website says that wildfire is “receiving limited action to protect values ​​in the area.”

Olsen said the territory’s fire resources are at a “relatively good spot” with 33 fire crews (each made up of four members) positioned throughout the NWT There are four air tanker groups — soon to be five by the end of next week — and five helicopters available.

He said if the season does get quite busy, the department has the ability to ask for more resources if needed.

Smoke from a wildfire can be seen in this shot taken from Fort Simpson on July 9, 2021. (Hannah Paulson/CBC)

Dryer areas near Great Slave Lake, eastern border

Throughout much of the territory, the fire danger risk is rated between “medium” and “extreme.”

Yellowknife has had dryer summer weather so far. On June 9, the city issued a mandatory open air burning ban. It includes the use of approved fire pits within the city due to “very dry conditions” and little rain in the forecast. The ban remains in effect.

“Most of the fire activity has been around the Great Slave Lake region,” Olsen said.

“What we’re starting to see is that there’s some pretty good drying going [on] up around Yellowknife and portions between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake and over to the Nunavut border to the east.”

Right now, he said there’s no indication that there will be any extreme droughts or areas of major concern “where we’re looking at really deep burning fires for extended kinds of periods.”

“But if we continue to get some good drying over several weeks with very little precipitation,” he warned, “any kind of fire that starts at least on the surface has the potential to spread.”

Last year’s fire season, like the few before it, was a bit slower in the NWT, Olsen said.

By August 3, 2021, the territory’s total number of wildfires that year — 131 wildfires affecting 114,174 hectares of land —was considered to be slightly below the territory’s 10-year average of 175 wildfires each year. The total last year was 139 wildfires.

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