NWT fire season to pick up where it left off: minister

NWT fire season to pick up where it left off: minister
The Birch Lake fire complex burns north of Fort Providence last summer, where the drought code broke records after peaking higher than 1,000 during the worst fire season in history.Photo: Kelly Pennycook, ENR.

For those trying to forget the smoke, road closures and close calls with towering infernos of flame of last summer’s furious fire season in the Northwest Territories, 2015 is bound to jog your memory, according to the territory’s environment minister.

Michael Miltenberger said last week that the 2015 forest fire season is likely to pick up where the last – considered the worst in NWT history – left off.

“The unfortunate reality for us is that all the indicators are, at this point – and anybody who walks out in the bush will see – there’s not a lot of snow, and there wasn’t any fall rain to speak of,” he said during a constituency meeting in Fort Smith.

“Unless we get a lot of snow in the rest of winter and then a lot of rain, the drought codes are going to start the year as bad as they ended last summer, which does not bode well for the type of fire season we may encounter.”

The drought code, a computer-generated formula that counts precipitation, humidity, wind, temperature and dryness of large fuels like trees, hit an all-time high in the NWT in 2014, reaching a record level of 1,024 outside of Fort Providence last August.

With 400 considered drought, Daniel Allaire said it was the most severe reading he has encountered North of 60.

“I’ve been in the fire business since 1978 and I’ve never seen drought code over 1,000 in the Northwest Territories,” the Environment and Natural Resources’ (ENR) South Slave forest manager told The Journal.

Allaire said staff with ENR will be conducting surveys in March and April to determine the snow’s water equivalency, which will be used along with last fall’s numbers to calculate the startup drought code for the season in May.

“If you have a high drought code in the fall and you have average to below-average snowfall, then there’s a very good chance that your drought code will be quite high in the springtime,” Allaire said.

Fort Smith started last fire season with a code of 251 and was at 430 when ENR stopped its calculations in September. At the international Crown Fire Modelling Experiment site north of Fort Providence, just south of last year’s massive Birch Lake fire complex, spring started with a 498 drought code and ended at 810.

According to Environment Canada data, snowfall is generally below monthly normals for communities across the territory. For example, Fort Smith received 18 cm of snow last month compared to its norm of 24 cm, and just shy of 12 cm in December, or half of the expected 23.8 cm.

While Fort Providence has more snow, Allaire said it might not be enough to quell a spring drought.

“They have maybe 30 cm, or a little over, of snow. That wouldn’t produce enough water equivalency,” he said.

Still, the drought code will depend on May and June precipitation levels. According to Allaire, 2.9 mm of rain is needed to affect the drought code, which increases each day there is no rain. The length of spring will also be a factor.

“If it’s a spring where the snow goes really quick, then most of the snow evaporates because the ground is frozen and the water doesn’t get to the ground,” Allaire said.

“Even if we get our normal precipitation for the month of May and we don’t really get a lot of snow, I’m afraid that we will be in a drought again.”

‘We will spend the money’: minister

Last year’s fire season cost a whopping $55 million – well beyond the budgeted $7.5 million – with an additional $20 million spent on bailing out the NWT Power Corp. after low water levels on the Snare hydro system essentially pushed Yellowknife onto diesel this winter.

Apart from the firefighting costs, massive blazes consuming a record 3.5 million hectares of forest across the southern half of the NWT threatened critical highway and electrical infrastructure, periodically closing roads, causing power outages, threatening communities and even destroying two wilderness lodges.

Despite the threat, last week’s budget showed no additional funding for forest management in the NWT; in fact, main estimates have dropped by around $50,000.

Miltenberger said he knows the number is “not adequate,” but said it won’t prevent the government from spending the money required to protect communities.

“While there’s a modest amount of money in the current fire budget, as we demonstrated last year, when the need is there our first commitment is protecting the people and properties and land in the Northwest Territories. We will spend the money,” he said.

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  • […] actually smouldered in drying peat through the entire winter only to break out again in the spring NWT fire season to pick up where it left off: minister ? Northern Journal. We are probably looking at a rise in climate of at least 4 degrees C no matter what humanity does […]

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