Fire season explodes early as lightning rolls into drought-stricken NWT

Fire season explodes early as lightning rolls into drought-stricken NWT
A map of active fires burning with the Northwest Territories as of May 25. There were over 20 new fires started by lightning over the

As lightning moved its way east from the Yukon over the mountains and into the Northwest Territories over the weekend, fire management crews were hoping it would bring some rain with it.

That wasn’t the case, however, when dry lightning sparked over 20 fires all the way from Norman Wells to the Alberta-NWT border, bringing the total number of fires in the territory since the beginning of the early fire season to 34.

“As a comparison, we would have had three to five fires around this time last year, and we have had 34 fires at this point in time,” said manager of fire operations for Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) Rick Olsen. “So the number of fires has noticeably increased.”

Already, the territory has 23 of its 28 Type 1 initial attack crews engaged and all aircraft manned, including helicopters and air tankers, though no community is presently at risk.

Currently, the majority of the fires are burning in the Dehcho region, where four of the 17 fires are being actioned by tankers near Trout Lake. Another seven fires are burning in the South Slave, most notably around Fort Providence. There are four active fires in the North Slave region, five in the Sahtu and one human caused fire near Inuvik.

As of Monday, a total of 1,063 hectares had burned, though Olsen said some fires were increasing “exponentially” in size.

Dryness is pervasive across the NWT, where summer temperatures came two to three weeks earlier than usual across the Dehcho, North Slave and South Slave regions, with record temperatures lining the Mackenzie Valley all the way up to Inuvik.

Last week, cold trough systems began to move their way under high-pressure ridge systems in the NWT, bringing dry lightning.

Though there is still no indication of rain, Olsen said colder air coming from the Eastern Arctic this week will likely see fewer fire starts.

“We might get some reprieve this week from lightning compared to last week,” he said.

Lightning has caused the majority of ongoing fires, while an active coal seam fire ignited nearby vegetation along the Mackenzie River near Tulita. There have been four person-caused fires in the NWT to date, in Inuvik, Fort Smith and Hay River. Four other fires have been confirmed as holdovers from last year, all of which are in the Fort Providence-Behchoko area.

Drought codes high across southern NWT

Olsen said drought conditions exist in a large part of the southern NWT, especially near Hay River, extending north toward Fort Providence and a large part of the Yellowknife-North Slave region, as well as east towards Jean Marie River, Fort Simpson and Wrigley in the Dehcho.

“Even starting out this spring, our drought levels, or measurements of moisture within the forest floor, started out in those areas a lot higher than what we would normally expect,” Olsen said. “The extent of really dry areas seems to be increasing from last year.”

The driest area in the territory is currently north of Fort Providence, the scene of the territory’s most massive fire complex last summer, where the area hit an all-time drought code high in the NWT, reaching a record level of 1,024 last August – the first time the drought code has surpassed 1,000.

The drought code is a computer-generated formula that calculates precipitation, humidity, wind, temperature and dryness of fuels like trees, where 400 is considered drought.

This year, the area started spring at a code of 350 and has moved up to the 485 mark over the past few weeks. Holdover fires from that burn, which survived the winter, have already begun to pop up on either side of the highway between Fort Providence and Behchoko. One of those, located approximately 40 km northwest of Fort Providence, is currently being actioned.

Another extremely dry area, Olsen said, is around Pine Point between Hay River and Fort Resolution, where Wood Buffalo National Park transitions into the NWT, east of Sandy Lake. Two fires – both within the park – also sprung up last week as holdovers from the year before. One grew to 2,000 hectares but both were put out by ENR bombers last week.

“Those areas are where we’ve seen over-winter burns from last season,” Olsen said. “That’s a very good indication of how dry things are, is when a fire smolders underground over the winter and then pops up in the spring.”

In Hay River, Olsen said the drought code is around 400 and just slightly below that in Fort Smith, at around 372. Closer to Fort Resolution, it’s a little wetter, hovering around 300.

Each day without rain raises the drought code, which needs at least 2.9 mm of rain to be held or pushed downward.

So far, Yellowknife has issued a fire ban on open fires within the community.

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