Wildfire update: most tankers and crews head home for season

An air tanker working on an NWT wildfire in 2015. Photo courtesy: NWT Fire on Facebook.
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Fire crews and aerial support staff are being sent home as the NWT wildfire season continues to wind down.

Eight of 28 fire crews were in service as of Monday afternoon, though none were actively firefighting in the territory. The rest had already been sent home for the season.

All long-term air support staff will finish their work for the season by September 1 barring any late-season emergencies.

At the start of this week, 241 wildfires had been reported in the territory for the season, burning 622,000 hectares of land. 61 of those fires were still active.

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See: Current NWT Wildfire Situation Reports

Officials say they’re expecting another 30 fires to ignite and as much as 100,000 hectares of land to burn before snowfall.

But those figures pale in comparison with last year’s record wildfire season. Even if another 100,000 hectares of land are affected, the total area burnt this year would equate to a fifth of last year’s total of 3.4-million hectares from 385 fires.

“We’re well below the number from last year,” said Richard Olsen, fire operations manager with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

That’s not to say that there weren’t areas of concern, though. In early August, cabin owners in the Reid Lake area, roughly 60 kilometres outside Yellowknife, prepared for the worst because of an advancing wildfire.

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Campgrounds at Reid Lake were closed and drivers weren’t denied access beyond the Cameron River bridge on the Ingraham Trail.

Luckily, value-protection units were able to prevent damage to buildings thanks to strategic fire suppression efforts.

Olsen told Moose FM property owners north of Fort Smith weren’t so lucky, however. Two cabins in the Sue Lake area, roughly 50 kilometers of the town, were consumed by a fire in the region.

Wildfire season turned in August

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The wildfire season took a turn for the better in early August, according to Olsen. Weather conditions and more aggressive firefighting were both contributing factors.

“Earlier in the season we were a little more aggressive on fires that showed longer-term, bigger potential,” he said.

“By trying to minimize the size of fires in areas where the potential was largest, that might have reduced the risk a little bit.

The growth potential for several fires was also limited because of burns from last year.

By late July, the territorial government began sending fire personnel and air support down south. Altogether, one tanker fleet was dispatched to Wood Buffalo, while a crew of 10 specialized fire personnel and another aircraft were sent to Oregon.

Read: NWT Wildfire Season Calms, Firefighters Could Head South

Olsen himself was dispatched to the States. He believes the experience was worthwhile.

“It was a good experience for individuals that went down because I think it solidified their own knowledge of work they do,” he said.

“When they come back here to work in the NWT, it’s definitely going to strengthen their competencies and their ability to undertake the work and share that experience with people they work with.”

Olsen says operations outside of the territory are important, since it could be the NWT that requires external assistance next year.

“It’s all designed for emergencies and to protect people and properties and to band together for the priority areas and to help out while we can.”

NWT firefighters sustained a few nicks and bruises on the job this summer, though Olsen says none were serious in nature.

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