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Smoke might still get in your eyes
Fire season not over yet: NWT fire manager

Emelie Peacock
Northern News Services
Saturday, August 19, 2017

Smoky skies over much of the North and South Slave in recent days didn't seem to phase campers with summer tourism winding down and aurora viewers taking their place.

NNSL photograph

A fire burning 60 kilometres south of Fort Resolution on August 12. The fire crossed over the NWT border from Wood Buffalo National Park and was 40 square kilometres as of August 12. The fire was one of several burning in the South Slave creating thick billowing smoke drifting through the region up to the North Slave resulting in high risk air quality readings for Yellowknife, Fort Resolution, Lutsel K'e, Fort Smith, Wekweeti, Whati and Behchoko. - photo courtesy of Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Record breaking temperatures and dry ground conditions resulted in several fast growing fires in the South Slave region, six fires in the Caribou Range merged together into one burning 3,968 square kilometres. Southerly winds pushed smoke from these fires up to the North Slave and the communities of Yellowknife, Fort Resolution, Lutsel K'e, Fort Smith, Wekweeti, Whati and Behchoko faced air quality warnings over the weekend.

With camping season winding down and aurora viewing tourism just beginning to trickle in, Drew Williams at the department of industry, tourism and investment said the smoky skies have had little noticeable effect on tourism's ebbs and flows.

At the Fred Henne Territorial Park just outside Yellowknife, Williams said campsites were full and no cancellations were received. He added people were choosing not to have fires when the smoke was at its worst.

"We didn't ask people not to have campfires but for some reason, naturally, there just seemed to be an inclination not to have a campfire," he said. "(It) works for us because the same dry conditions resulting in the fires and the smoke that we were getting make it a safety concern for our parks."

With a change in winds mid-week, many communities are seeing clearer skies. Richard Olsen, fire operations manager at the department of environment and natural resources, said the fire season is officially over in September and there is still a chance for more extreme fires over the next week.

"We're not quite out of the fire season. We're looking for things that might be putting us back to normal or even reducing the intensity of fires or putting fires on the landscape out. From an environmental perspective, some kind of three day rain event," he said.

Richard Olsen said firefighting in the NWT is about balancing the natural burning that occurs with the need to protect people's homes, communities and major infrastructure. Not all fires can be fought because of limited resources, many are monitored to avoid the loss of possessions and infrastructure.

"We don't want to interfere with the ecological conditions and balance within the NWT by limiting fires, so that we actually create a condition where we see a lot of old growth that's actually going to create larger fires and put things out of balance," he said.

NWT chief medical health officer Andre Corriveau advised communities facing air quality warnings to stay indoors with their windows closed and avoid strenuous outdoor activity. He added those most affected are people with chronic conditions, especially cardiovascular or lung diseases, as well as infants under the age of one.

Olsen said the NWT has halted the sending of fire crews to B.C. because of the need at home. Throughout the summer 105 people were deployed to help with hundreds of fires burning in the province, now there are only 20 NWT firefighters remaining.

In the NWT it has been a relatively mild fire season compared to previous years, with 228 wildland fires reported and 9,241 square kilometres burned. In 2014, the worst fire season in 40 years saw 344 fires and 28,309 kilometres burned by early August.

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