Fire officials are on high alert as the potential threat of a forest fire looms over northern communities.
A lack of precipitation, hot temperatures and strong, dry winds this spring have created ripe conditions for wildfires. All are reasons for concern according to fire experts.
A satellite image of the country shows a high pressure ridge called an “omega block” that forms a cloudless band across the southern NWT and northern Alberta. It’s been the same picture everyday for weeks says Frank Lepine manager of fire operations at the NWT government’s fire operations centre in Fort Smith.
“What we’ve gone from winter conditions to extremely dangerous forest fire conditions in little less than a month,” Lepine said.
“We’re at least a week to two weeks early for normal fire season which is early June through to August. We’ve been in that mode for at least ten days. Fortunately, there have been no lightning outbreaks in the NWT, but we’re expecting something maybe next week and our meteorologist isn’t giving us any precipitation for awhile. It’s all very sketchy now.”
People need to be aware of the extreme fire conditions facing the region warns Rick Olsen, manager of forests in the South Slave Region. There’s only so much officials can do, he says, preventing a disaster ultimately depends on individuals.
Although the lack of rain has been good for golf and enjoying the outdoors, the longer the drought continues the greater the danger. Not only has the material covering the forest floor dried out, but it has now affected the organic material called “duff” lying under the surface creating even more fuel for a wildfire. In the end, it means fires that start early in the season pose more danger because they can burn longer as things get drier over the summer.
“We have a better ability to track lightning as it moves through the area which gives us a good idea of where fires may start,” Olsen said, “but we don’t have the ability to track people caused fires unless they have a burning permit.”
“Under our legislation people are allowed to light a fire outside of the town boundary to cook or keep warm, but it still means they are responsible for that fire and it means they cannot leave that fire until it’s extinguished. We recommend using other alternatives if possible.”
To minimize the risks of a fire outbreak, Lepine told The Journal they have stopped issuing burning permits for burning brush or debris in the South Slave region as of last week. He says problems can develop too rapidly to take any chances.
“With a burning permit you could be doing something that you think is very safe, but very strong winds can easily take a small grass fire and quickly turn it into a forest fire.”
In spite of the dangers, fires play an important role in keeping forests healthy by rejuvenating the soil with nutrients that allow for new growth. In Olsen’s view it’s all a part of living in the north.
“We need to keep in mind that like the people of Slave Lake, we live in a fire dependent environment,” he said. “It’s natural for the forest to grow up, grow old and burn. Its best recognize that to live and work within that natural system, you have to do what you can to limit the possibility of fire damaging something of value to you.”
At the territories’ fire operations centre, Lepine says everyone is prepared for the worst.
“We’re waiting to see what happens. All of our air tankers, helicopters and our working crews are on high alert. We’re in a high state of readiness.”
Disaster preparedness exercises discussed
Fort Smith’s town council chambers were packed all day last Wednesday with representatives from every agency that could have a role in an emergency, especially if a forest fire threatened the town.
The meeting was the first in a series that has participants responding to fictional disaster scenarios to foster better emergency preparedness. Tully Waisman of Richmond, B.C., an expert in developing emergency response plans, led the meeting. Waisman began by providing recommendations on organizing effective leadership and strategies for coordinating all the town’s emergency resources efficiently.
Waisman’s images of the devastation after the fire in Slave Lake offered a poignant reminder of the consequences of inaction before wildfires occur. He cautioned the group that the fire’s rapid movement and the little time it took to destroy a town larger than Fort Smith shows how critical it is to have a plan ready.
For much of the meeting, Waisman had participants imagine their response to a mock wildfire on the edge of town. He used his experiences fighting fires in the Okanagan Valley to show participants how rapidly options change and why decisions need to made quickly. In such situations, he said confusion can easily result in unnecessary deaths and destruction.
At each stage of the mock fire, Waisman had participants share their responses in terms of the resources and priorities they would be dealing with.
It soon became clear as the imaginary fire moved closer to the community there was a need to have alternative plans ready. For example, if the plan was to evacuate the town by air, what action would be required if the airport had to be closed because the smoke was too thick making it unsafe to fly? Other concerns included communicating to the public effectively, transporting and caring for evacuees and possible escape routes if the fire made its way into town.
Waisman wrapped up the meeting by having each participant describe the types of resources and services they could offer during an emergency.
Town leaders plan to meet for another tabletop discussion and will eventually perform an emergency response exercise to a mock disaster later this summer.
Waisman is carrying out the planning exercises on behalf of the NWT government department of Municipal and Community Affairs. Plans are in the works to carry out other similar planning exercises in other NWT communities over the summer.