“When the final count is done, with over 3.3 million hectares burned, the cost and the amount of people involved, this fire season is going to be one for the record books,” NWT Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) Minister Michael Miltenberger told The Journal last Thursday.
“Thank goodness for agreements with other jurisdictions,” he noted about the firefighting resources exchange program. “We needed them. We drew down every one available.”
Just that morning, Miltenberger had personally said goodbye and thanked two tired crews from Ontario that were heading home from the Yellowknife airport.
“Two unfortunate incidents” marked the summer campaign, the minister said: the residence lost at the Hoarfrost River earlier in the summer and the burning of the Moraine Point Lodge near Fort Providence just last week.
“The loss of property was unfortunate. We tried our best to protect everything,” he said.
Still, it is noteworthy that nothing horrendous happened and there has been no loss of life in such a large campaign, Miltenberger said. In his view, the firefighters and ENR staff had performed “absolutely admirably.”
“There were real challenges. Many of them put their lives in harm’s way. They deserve a ton of credit.”
Lessons to be learned
Miltenberger said “there are lessons to be learned from this fire season” that will be discussed during the winter.
“Fire behaviour has changed. The drought codes are off the charts. Winds are highly unusual. There are tens of thousands of lightning strikes. Fires can move at a rapid pace. It’s all new territory, related to climate change. Hopefully that is not going to be the new norm, but we have to learn from it.”
He said Kakisa as a community “was fire-smarted, and it served them well when they were threatened by a massive wildfire.” Though concerns were expressed by some Yellowknife residents that they were vulnerable, “with their back to the water and open spaces like airports and golf courses to protect them,” the risk from fires is not particularly high there. He said communities like Fort Simpson and Fort Smith that are right in the middle of forests do have something to worry about, and that more precautionary measures need to be taken there.
Being “proactive and preventative” will be important, he said.
Fires $50 million over budget
The total cost of firefighting for the season so far is $55 million, and rising – that from a budget of $7 million. There were 330 active firefighting personnel, but with cooler temperatures, that number is expected to be reduced somewhat by the end of this week. Personnel and resources have been loaned by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska.
“There is still significant fire danger. We are challenged by fatigue, but we will remain vigilant,” said Frank Lepine, associate director of forest management for ENR. “We are finally starting to get the upper hand on some of the critical fire complexes.”
There have been 384 fires so far in the NWT, and with 307 still burning and drought codes high, fire conditions are still critical in some areas in the North and South Slave in a season that “still promises to be long and drawn out – a fire season that could extend into October.”
Lepine said the big lesson learned in this unusually harsh season is having to pay closer attention to wind events.
“Every fire we have had trouble with has been a result of winds from the upper atmosphere causing low level jets,” he said.
Lepine also acknowledged the two major losses of property, and said there have also been cabins lost on which they are still receiving information.
“We are really fortunate we have not had any aircraft accidents or personnel injury,” he said. “Knock on wood.”