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North Slave 'area to watch' for forest fires
Poor spring melt leaves area vulnerable to fire, rain needed: ENR

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, May 16, 2013

After a winter with below-average snowfall and a dry spring, forest fire officials are keeping a close eye on the North Slave.

NNSL photo/graphic

This lightning-caused fire burned approximately 24,000 hectares of wilderness near Birch Lake in 2011. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is worried this summer could be a bad one for forest fires due to the lack of snow and spring melt this year. - photo courtesy of Environment and Natural Resources

"We're anticipating (the North Slave) is going to be an area to watch," said Richard Olsen, manager of fire operations with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

Cold temperatures this spring have caused most of the snow to evaporate before it had a chance to melt into the ground, he said, which means the soil is not as moist as it could be.

Each spring, field workers take samples and test soil moisture, which Olsen said has been going on since March. However, the results of this testing have yet to be released.

What is clear is that "the North Slave is starting of drier than usual," he said, which is a cause for concern once lightning storms start rolling in.

The department's fire division was kept busy last summer, with 59 fires in the North Slave alone burning 83,554 hectares of forest. Fire bans were implemented in territorial park campgrounds and within city limits after a spring with little rain. Similar conditions were also reported in 2011.

It is still possible this year's conditions may improve before forest fire season gets underway, said Olsen.

"The big indicator will be how much rain falls in May," he said.

Forests are in a vulnerable position between the time ground-cover snow disappears and when greenery covers the ground, said Yvonne Bilan-Wallace, meteorologist with Environment Canada.

"Yellowknife is on the dry side," she said of precipitation levels during the past 90 days. "You are in a very vulnerable fire situation but once the green-up happens, then you have more moisture."

In general, ENR focuses on monitoring fires near communities, popular recreation areas and near major infrastructure like power lines, said Olsen. Fires that threaten any of these are actively fought by the department, while in other areas nature is allowed to take its course and fires normally burn themselves out or are put out by a heavy rainfall.

From a firefighting perspective, ideal summer weather includes prolonged rainfall and temperatures around 20 C overnight, which allows moisture to seep into the soil, he said.

With Environment Canada calling for average temperatures throughout the summer, this could mean the region will get the rain it needs, but also means good conditions for thunder storms, which cause the vast majority of forest fires, said Olsen.

"Nature will take its course and we will react," he said.

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