‘The cupboard is empty’: Firefighters stretched thin as drought consumes western Canada

‘The cupboard is empty’: Firefighters stretched thin as drought consumes western Canada
Fire crews have been able to set up fireguards using heavy equipment and burnout operations between the Paradise Complex and the community of Hay River, which was put on alert for possible evacuation last week.Dali Carmichael.

“No one is at rest at this time.” That’s the general situation for firefighters across western Canada right now, according to Frank Lepine, director of forest management for NWT’s Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), and certainly true of the Northwest Territories, where all 28 five-person crews are engaged along with an additional 100 emergency firefighters doing mop-up work.

Those crews have been joined by 85 personnel imported mostly from Ontario – one of the only places in the country able to supply additional resources while Saskatchewan and Alberta evacuate thousands from their northern communities and smoke pours into cities typically immune from the burning boreal forest, like Vancouver and Victoria.

“The cupboard is empty,” Lepine said. “Right now, the country is on level five, which is the highest level it’s ever been on. I don’t know if we’ve ever experienced a situation like Saskatchewan before.”

A level five is the highest reading on the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre Inc.’s National Wildland Fire Situation Report, which measures agency preparedness in the face of extreme fire hazards. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan were at a level five as of Tuesday, meaning resources are inadequate for the extreme fire hazard and existing load. It also means the two provinces are unable to spare any resources for other jurisdictions through mutual aid agreements.

Lepine said Canada is looking at importing human resources from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, while Alberta has already brought in firefighters from Mexico.

“There’s very few resources available, so Canada is looking internationally for help,” Lepine said. “The big issue becomes, after a while, you have to recycle all these people. They have to have breaks and you need relief.”

To date, there have been 195 fires in the NWT, with 145 still burning. While some rain and cooler weather has aided containment efforts in the NWT, Lepine worries what will happen when the drought rebounds next week when temperatures are predicted to rise with no chance of precipitation.

“That’s when the bad news starts. Our meteorologist is saying, starting Sunday and for about a two-week period, we’ll get a high pressure ridge building over the Northwest Territories, and for a two-week period, we’ll see some high temperatures, very windy, warm conditions,” Lepine said.

“The fires that we’re not actioning, we can expect a lot of growth on them…We’re going to see a lot of smoky conditions over the next while.”

Risks to Hay River, Jean Marie River dissipate

Still, the momentary downturn has helped avoid total disaster for at least two NWT communities.

Hay River, which was put on alert for evacuation and whose outer estates voluntarily evacuated last week after a fire came within a few kilometres of people’s homes, saw favourable wind conditions allow ENR crews to doze cat guards and conduct burnout operations between the blaze and the community.

Crews are now mopping up hotspots in the area, and are waiting for weather to become favourable once more to conduct a final burnout that will protect the community from the southeast.

A total of 60 firefighters are actively working on the situation, and sprinkler systems are protecting homes and other values in the area.

“A lot of effort has gone into protecting houses and infrastructure along the corridor,” Lepine said.

In Jean Marie River, where a fire 3 km from the community saw residents evacuate last week, crews have been able to contain 90 per cent of the fire and should have it wrapped up by the end of the week.

Explosives used to create ponds in drought areas

Apart from the fires near Hay River and Jean Marie River, ENR is also actioning two other complexes with the potential to impact communities and infrastructure.

Around 27 km northeast of Fort Providence, crews and dozers are working on putting out a 5,000-hectare blaze, challenged by a lack of locally sourced water. Lepine said crews have had to use explosives to blast out artificial ponds in order to fight the fire in an area ravaged by drought.

“Generally, there’s no real deep ponds to work with or so on, but this year, especially with the drought, there’s no water available,” Lepine said. “We have to look really hard to find water sources, and it seems to be a common occurrence when you talk to other jurisdictions.”

Near Fort Simpson, the Antoine Complex – a series of seven fires – continues to require work. Though five of the fires have been brought under control, the largest – at 10,000 hectares – will take another three to four weeks to be contained. That fire is approximately 35 km south of Fort Simpson.

Close to 50 fires in Wood Buffalo Park

Firefighters in Wood Buffalo National Park continue to focus on three complexes, the primary one being a set of 10 fires stretching 70 km along Highway 5 west of Fort Smith.

“Parks Canada wildland fire management personnel will be conducting operations adjacent to NWT Highway 5 to manage a group of fires that resulted from significant recent lightning activity. These operations include helicopters working in the area and crews and heavy equipment alongside the highway,” Parks spokespeople announced Monday afternoon. “Park staff are focussed on minimizing the impact of these fires on the highway and the power and telecommunications infrastructure in the highway corridor. Parks Canada is working with NorthwesTel and the NWT Power Corporation to safeguard critical infrastructure.”

Personnel are also working on a set of fires known as the South Slave complex near Hay Camp, and another series of fires around the Peace River from Garden River to Moose Island and south to the Birch River. Those large fires are causing significant smoke, impacting air, road and river travel corridors. The road from Peace Point to Moose Island may be closed on short notice.

More than 20 fires in the High Level area

Fires near High Level, Alta. continued to challenge crews and kept a special air quality statement in effect for the area over the weekend.

One fire burning 3 km west of the North Tallcree First Nation, a small community of about 100 people located east of High Level, was evacuated last week as a precaution. On Sunday, heavy equipment was able to complete a 14 km fireguard on the north side of the community. That fire is now around 6,000 hectares in size.
Two of the four out of control fires burning 11 km north of Meander River on the west side of Highway 35 are now being held and are not expected to grow past current boundaries. Residents of Meander River have been placed on evacuation alert.

A wildfire burning 50 km west of High Level south of Highway 58 is out of control and over 28,000 hectares. Close to 160 firefighters are managing the blaze and cat guards are being established on the north and northeast sides of the fire.

Two more fires are burning north and northwest of the Steen River, west of Highway 35. One, located 12 km north, is now under control, while the one 24 km northwest is out of control and closing in on 10,000 hectares. This fire is affecting visibility along Highway 35.

Smoke is expected to be heavy again early this week. The wildfire hazard for the area continues to be extreme.

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