According to the charts the NWT fire season is normally officially over August 13, but this year it is only now beginning to wind down.
“It’s starting to cool down with shorter days, only three to four hours of burn time during the heat of the day for the fine fuels. There is lots of recovery time at night with heavy dew and high humidity as the days grow shorter,” Fire Control Officer Dave Purchase in the NWT Fire Centre told The Journal Monday afternoon.
They are still on alert, however. Hot dry conditions still prevail in Fort Liard and Fort Providence areas. Of the 268 fires that have been fought in the NWT since the season started in springtime, 194 have been declared out and the remaining 74 are “being monitored.”
“We still maintain vigilance. Lots of big fires occur when people least expect it – in spring when people are still used to winter and even more so in fall if there has been sustained drought,” said Kris Johnson, also of the Fire Centre.
“People can get complacent. If it has been dry, the fire can go underground and pop up in other places,” he stated. “We are winding down but our fire season won’t likely be over until the end of September.
Frank Lepine, another of the Fire Center fire managers described the summer of 2012 as “one of the busiest fire seasons ever.”
“There was severe burning conditions and a number of large fires. They grew rapidly and were hard to control.” He said drought conditions were reported throughout the Mackenzie Valley including the Mackenzie Delta, Sahtu, Dehcho, North Slave and South Slave.
The number of fires fought in the season is right on track with the 20 year average. An anomaly is that there were few fires in the Caribou Range – the vast area of Canadian Shield country to the east of the Slave River. It is usually the area that has the most fires, but it only suffered a few this season.
The nature of the fires is also different this season.
“The fires burned hotter and deeper giving us a lot more trouble than normal,” commented Purchase.
Eight new fires were reported in the second week in August, when the fire season is normally over. The week after that a fire threatened Fort Resolution and extensive action by air tankers and ground crews working together was required to knock it down.
NWT communities that have experienced fires too close for comfort in the summer of 2012 include:
- A scrub brush in the tundra burned for weeks near Tuktoyaktuk causing smoke in the community;
- Inuvik had two fires close to town that took concerted action early in the season;
- Deline experienced a large fire 20 km north of town;
- Gameti had two large fires nearby;
- Behchoko had a very large fire not far away that took over a month of fighting with multiple crews. They used a burnout to create a fire that burned back into the main one.
Whati had a big fire not far away;
- Fort Simpson had a major fire a ways away to the northwest;
- There was a huge fire south of Enterprise along the 60th parallel that started in June and lasted to the end of July before it was brought under control. A crew of 30 Alaskan firefighters came to help with the stubborn blaze.
- There were two fires on Salt Mountain west of Fort Smith. The first was hit hard by air tankers and crews and brought under control fairly quickly; the second started in Wood Buffalo National Park, got big and hot in a hurry and headed toward the highway and power line. It was brought under control thanks to a massive multi-jurisdictional effort (see adjacent story);
- There was another fire to the north of that in Wood Buffalo National Park near the whooping crane nesting area;
- Fort Resolution had the last major fire near a town. It was stubborn and had to be hit hard by air tankers and ground crews to get it under control.
Waking the beast, then knocking it flat
“We woke the beast up. We created a monster by making it bigger and hotter with greater intensity, in order to stop it.” Steve Otway, the Resource Conservation Officer for Jasper National Park, was part of a team of Parks Canada crews who happened to be in Wood Buffalo when the Salt Mountain fire reared up. It fell to Otway to be the Incident Commander and coordinate the multi-jurisdictional initiative.
What they did was initiate a “burnout.” They started a number of small fires along the face of the fire. Even though the wind was blowing them in an opposite direction, the new, smaller fires were drawn back toward the big one.
“The fire was so big and hot it created its own weather system. The fires we started were sucked back into the big fire. The in-draft created ‘stands up’ the fire. A ‘column’ is created that then collapses in on itself,” explained Otway.
The procedure was perfectly executed and the fire stalled and came under control all along the highway, exactly as designed.
Otway says a burnout of that magnitude “needs real estate.”
“It needs to be done away from any values at risk (like homes or a community), and it needs space and time.”
“Is it risky? Yes.
Is it guaranteed? No.
Is it necessary? Yes, but under certain circumstances, and this was one of them.”
“It is dangerous, high end work. Not for the faint of heart,” he stated.
Otway, who has been fighting wildfires for decades and is nearing retirement, says what they do involves a “deep respect for fire.” “We are all scientists first – fire behavior specialists.”
He says fire plays a vital role in keeping the ecology healthy and they respect that. Fires “reset the clock for many plant species” and they want to maintain a “robust fire cycle.” Additionally, when a fire burns it does so more intensely in some areas and that creates a patchwork effect in the forest which is essential to biodiversity. He said fires in those cases are not destructive, they are a “renewal agent.”
Coming together to face the fury of a major fire
The Salt Mountain fire in late July, the second in that area in less than a month, started in Wood Buffalo National Park, got big in a hurry and was pushed by wind toward the highway and power line that Fort Smith depends on.
“Initial attack was not able to contain it,” Wood Buffalo National Park Fire Management Officer Jean Morin told The Journal.
He said they went from ground crews to bucketing with helicopters in support of ground crews to air tankers in support of multiple ground crews, all within a day, with little effect.
“The fire was already crowning (traveling in the treetops, pushed by wind). We needed a new strategy. We went from ‘keep it small’ to ‘manage it.’”
The fire was located at a point where Alberta and the NWT come together along the 60th parallel and adjacent to the Park boundary, so Morin called in the other two jurisdictions. For the first time ever, all three came to the table together to coordinate the attack.
By the fifth day the full force of the three jurisdictions was applied against the fire with eight helicopters working, eight caterpillars cutting fire guards and multiple crews on the ground, including a supplementary contingent from British Columbia. A major burnout was executed in front of the fire and “it was stood up” and stopped at the highway, bringing it under control.
All that action with all those resources and personnel coordinated among three jurisdictions took only five days.