Northwest Territories forest officers believe this summer’s wildfires could be as bad as the devastating 2014 season.
Last summer’s forest fire season was considered the worst the territory has experienced.
Almost 400 separate fires scorched 3.5 million hectares of land and caused considerable disruption, ranging from the destruction of homes to road closures and smoke-related breathing difficulties.
The NWT’s department of environment and natural resources spent $55 million fighting that year’s fires, eight times the amount it had initially budgeted.
This year, the department is bracing for more of the same.
Janice Ziemann, forest officer for the North Slave region, says the territory is trapped in a drought which only exceptional levels of rain and snowfall can end.
“We’re set in a long-term drought,” Ziemann told Moose FM. “Last summer we got very little rain and we had a really quick spring last year, so we had a lot of snow evaporate into the air – it didn’t get into the ground, so the ground was a lot drier.
“If we don’t get a lot more snow, and we have another cold spring where the snow evaporates and there’s not a whole lot of precipitation, then we’re likely going to have another bad season.”
The last two winters have been the two driest on record in the NWT.
Taking Yellowknife as an example, Ziemann says the local area receives around 300mm of annual precipitation on average.
However, to end the current drought conditions, Yellowknife would need “approximately 400-600mm”.
“That’s a lot of precipitation,” she said. “It’s probably not something that’s going to happen.”
The department is now looking at bringing back its fire crews earlier than in previous years, in anticipation of another busy season.
Ziemann says the City of Yellowknife is also considering investing in more equipment. The territorial government reportedly bought eight new firefighting air tankers in October, but these are not set to arrive until 2017.
In the meantime, residents are being urged to do all they can to plan for the summer wildfire season.
The City of Yellowknife’s director of public safety, Dennis Marchiori, tweeted after a briefing on Wednesday that “2015 could be just as bad – plan ahead for your house, wherever it is”.
“There’s literature you can get from our office and online that tells you how to protect your property against wildfires,” said Ziemann, whose department is set to host community workshops on protecting your home this March.
Not until May, she says, will we have a clearer idea of how the summer of 2015 will pan out.
“We’ll see how the spring goes – we still have a couple of months of winter, and some snowfall hopefully. We’ll see what kind of spring we have in April, what kind of rain we get in May, and go from there.”