ENR expert doesn’t expect big forest fires this summer

NNSL file photo A helicopter drops water on a back burn on the east side of the Hay River near Enterprise in July of last year.

NNSL file photo
A helicopter drops water on a back burn on the east side of the Hay River near Enterprise in July of last year.

At the moment, things are looking pretty good for the upcoming forest fire season in the Hay River area.

That’s according to Daniel Allaire, the regional forests manager with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Fort Smith.

Allaire, who was speaking at a public meeting in Hay River on April 15, pointed to the drought code, which is a calculation of the dryness of the forest floor.

“We did the snow survey this year and the drought code for May 1 for Hay River is going to be 77, and that was 296 last year,” he said. “So it’s a big, big difference.”

A drought code of 77 is a good sign, he said. “I personally don’t expect we’re going to get those big fires this coming summer, unless we have no rain in May and June.”

No rain will make the drought code climb, especially when the temperature is high and there is wind.

“What you’ve got to remember about drought code is when it’s about 400, it’s a drought,” Allaire said, explaining that then the dry layer of duff would go right down to the soil and that would sustain a fire for a long time.

“The higher that number is above 400, the drier it is,” he added.

ENR will do a drought code verification in the bush once the snow is gone.

Allaire also had a positive prediction about whether the large fire on the east side of the Hay River last summer, stretching from Paradise Valley to Enterprise, could have survived the winter by burning under the snow.

“What’s the likelihood that it burned underground?” asked Kathy Beaupre, who lives along the river south of Paradise Valley.

“I don’t think we will have any holdover,” Allaire answered. “But as soon as the snow goes, that’s one thing we’re going to have a look at for sure.”

The ENR official pointed out the large fire was knocked down by heavy rain last fall.

Allaire said 2015 was quite unusual because there were seven holdover fires from 2014 in the South Slave, plus two others in Wood Buffalo National Park.

“It shows you how dry it was out there,” he said.

ENR hosted the April 15 community meeting to mainly discuss the 2015 fire season and the upcoming fire season.

About eight members of the public showed up for the meeting, which was one of a series in the South Slave.

“It’s pretty hard to predict how many fires you’re going to have,” said Allaire.

Over the last 33 years, the South Slave has had an average of about 90 fires per year but the annual totals can vary wildly.

“The total number of fires is kind of all over the map,” said Allaire. “Last year, we got 84 fires and in 2014 we got 152.”

In 2009, the South Slave had 16 fires but the year before there were 123 fires.

“So there’s no pattern there,” Allaire said.

Last year’s 84 fires burned 2,804 square kilometres but that is just 1.84 per cent of the land in the South Slave, excluding Wood Buffalo National Park.

The 40-year average for the number of wildfires in the NWT is 278.

The record high was 622 in 1994, while the lowest number was 45 in 2009.

Last year, there were 245 wildfires in the NWT.

–Paul Bickford