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Predicting fire season a crapshoot

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, May 14, 2012

It is too early to say what the coming fire season has in store, but there are some indications of where it may be heading.

NNSL photo/graphic

Jean Morin, the fire management officer with Wood Buffalo National Park, ignites unburned vegetation as a way to help control a forest fire in the park in 2010. - photo courtesy of Pierre Martel, Parks Canada

Kris Johnson, territorial duty officer with the GNWT's Fire Centre in Fort Smith, is concerned about the wind this spring in the southern Northwest Territories and a process called sublimation.

"Normally what happens when snow melts, it goes down into the ground and that kind of recharges the ground and stops fire from really digging in," he said. "But what happens with sublimation is it basically just evaporates."

That leads him to believe slightly drier conditions will be seen across the southern NWT, unless there are some good rains on the way.

Johnson noted that means a "serious" fire season might be approaching.

As for the northern part of the NWT, he noted there is still a fair amount of snow in Inuvik and it still remains to be seen how the snow will melt in that region.

Johnson said the Department of Energy and Natural Resources will monitor the fire danger levels by looking at a variety of indicators, such things as moisture in the soil and in air, temperature, rainfall and wind.

"Ultimately what it comes down, to is it is kind of a crapshoot at this point in time," he said of predicting what the fire season might be like. "It could go in either direction."

Johnson also advised people to start thinking about forest fire prevention.

"It's time to put away the hockey sticks and start thinking fire safety," he said.

In the Wood Buffalo National Park region, the forest fire outlook for May and June is better than what the outlook was a couple of months ago.

"Before March, we were predicting well above average fire danger, but it calmed down with the March precipitation," said Jean Morin, the fire management officer with Wood Buffalo.

Now, the prediction for the rest of May and June is the fire danger will be normal or maybe a little above average.

Morin said it is a little bit early to make a prediction on the fire season throughout the summer.

"We'd like to know how much rain we get in the spring," he said. "That will lead us to a better understanding."

Morin said, once June arrives and if there has been no precipitation in May or early June, then the park will become more concerned with fire danger.

"If we don't get precipitation, the vegetation dries very, very quickly because we get up to 19 hours of sunlight a little later," he said. "Even if we get a little bit of rain, it's not enough to change the fire danger. We really have to have moisture and precipitation over a few days to really lower the fire danger when we get at that point."

Right now, the park is monitoring temperature, relative humidity, precipitation and other factors to gather information on the fire danger.

The park has also begun to monitor for lightning strikes so it will know when the lightning strike season starts.

Morin said there is the odd lightning strike at this time of year, but lightning strikes become more significant at the end of May and into June.

Wood Buffalo National Park is also preparing for the fire season.

"We do that winter long, but we actually get our resources in place starting mid-April," Morin said, explaining that involves such things as hiring fire crews and arranging contracts for aircraft.

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