Fire season is all but done in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with just three fires under control continuing to burn far away from any community that would notice them, awaiting the final rain or snow that will put an official end to the 2011 season.
This summer, the Parks Canada fire management team oversaw 19 fires engulfing a total of 84,920 hectares of boreal forest. Four of those were high-priority fires, including the fast-spreading Richardson fire at the south end of the park that pushed northward, threatening Fort Chipewyan and consuming nearly 47,000 hectares inside the park in mid-June.
Another was the late-June blaze near Highway 5 west of Fort Smith that put the town on a high-anxiety evacuation alert before it was finally extinguished.
Fire season came very early to WBNP this year, beginning in the delta near Lake Claire southwest of Fort Chipewyan on April 15 with a human-ignited, quick-moving fire that required full suppression tactics by response crews.
Jean Morin, fire management officer for Wood Buffalo, said extreme drought conditions in the spring presented perfect fuel for the quick-spreading fires that meant near-evacuation for the two communities.
“What makes it difficult is to control the original spread,” he told The Journal. “This is hard to do in the spring because all the vegetation is cured – there is no moisture yet, no leaves on the aspen, no moisture dome created by the vegetation. So if you have fires in the spring, the spread can be significant. That’s what happened in Slave Lake and south of Fort Chip.”
Early spring conditions are naturally dangerous, with much of the water still frozen and dry grass exposed. But with drought conditions stretching into late June, fires began springing up all over the park – seven in the last week of June alone.
Finally in July rains fell, quelling the threat.
“Moisture influences the severity of fire,” said Morin. “The average rain was normal in July, but if we had no rain, the fires would have been very intense. It was a great concern because of the drought. It’s amazing, the aspen were starting to desiccate from lack of moisture in the ground. Their leaves were turning brown.”
As a fire-dependent ecosystem, it is actually beneficial to the boreal forest to undergo fires during the summer, said Morin. When possible, the fire management team will let fires burn as long as property and human lives are not at risk.
Weather conditions in the region are also perfect for forest fires, making it the busiest park in the country for fire management, said Morin.
“There’s a lot of lightning and we have 20 hours of daylight, meaning there’s a lot of drying,” he said. “We often have low humidity and it’s windy.”
Alberta and NWT fire seasons come to close
As fire season comes to a close, fire management officers on both sides of the border are reviewing a year that saw both extreme property destruction and beneficial natural rejuvenation.
Alberta faced a tragic year in terms of loss of valuables, most notably with the blaze that overtook Slave Lake.
“(The Slave Lake fire) was the most destructive when it comes to structures,” said Sara Shier, wildfire information officer for Alberta’s provincial fire centre. “We haven’t seen a fire take over a town like that in many, many years. It was definitely the most devastating.”
While the total number of fires was about average in Alberta, the ground that fires covered was massive. The province of Alberta saw 1,094 forest fires beginning April 1 of this year, burning a total of 940,762.5 hectares. Fifteen fires continue to burn in a controlled manner in the province.
Shier said the Richardson fire, which took out a massive total of 700,000 hectares in Alberta alone, was of major concern as well due to its close proximity to the oilsands. The fire continues to smolder with some “hot spots,” she said, but is under control.
Similar conditions could have led to disaster in the NWT, as well.
“We ended up with the same conditions as Slave Lake, with warm winds and dry conditions. We were way above normal for most of the year,” said Frank Lepine, manager of fire operations with the GNWT forest management division. “It was shaping up to be a disaster year, but by July we had got precipitation enough to put us down to a normal year.”
The NWT experienced a below-average year in terms of the number of fires, with just 207 scattered across the territory. Sixty-two of those were in the South Slave region.
This year, said Lepine, most fires ended up in uninhabited areas where they could burn naturally, consuming 390,583 hectares (or 0.65 per cent) of the 60 million hectares of forested land.
Four fires continue to burn in the North and South Slave regions, but are under control. But Lepine said there is a great risk of the same dangerous spring conditions next year.
“Drought is still here,” he said. “If we don’t get lots of snow, we could be in the same position next year, so we need to monitor over the winter.”