A Wildfire Post-Mortem
Five years ago, wildfires raged across the Northwest Territories, setting three million hectares of wilderness aflame. Ash fell daily. Smoke filled the sky. The territorial government wound up spending over $55 million battling the blaze.
It was a costly lesson in fire management. It also brought together a think-tank of government experts, university researchers and NASA scientists to collaborate, share data and find ways to improve fire management in case it ever happened again.
And it seems to have been a success. Assembled again this week for a "sharing and planning workshop" held at the Explorer Hotel in Yellowknife, the team of wildfire experts spoke to reporters about just how much they've learned.
“I can’t stress enough the fact that, at least from my perspective, we were quite limited in our scope and our knowledge,” said Richard Olsen, fire operations manager for the GNWT. “Without these relationships and back-and-forth, and that quest for good understanding of what is going on, I don’t think we’d be in the state we are right now.”
“This is really, for the boreal biome, the most thorough post-mortem of a fire season that has ever happened,” added Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist with Canada’s National Forestry Centre.
Subsequent years since 2014 have seen wildfires wax and wane in severity. Last year, they consumed fewer than 12,000 hectares—less than one per cent of the area that burned in 2014. The 2015 season, on the other hand, had the potential to be just as bad—if not worse—than 2014, but ironically the prior year's inferno had already used up all the fuel. There was nothing left to burn.
“Fire is so powerful that the only thing that limits fire, is fire itself,” said Merrit Turetsky, a professor with the University of Guelph.
Regardless, the territory now appears better equipped to spot, and maybe even stop, wildfires from raging out of control in the future. One of the biggest changes has been the use of remote monitoring to quickly discover where and when a potential wildfire has erupted. Before 2014, Olsen said it could take several days to be alerted. Now, a fire burning in an area as small as a single hectare can be spotted within 24 hours (provided there’s no cloud cover blocking satellites). The increased surveillance has also discovered new fires, happening in corners of the NWT that weren't previously being monitored.
“In some ways, we’re getting a clearer picture of what the fire environment is,” said Olsen. “I think a lot of that is going to help us in terms of prioritizing response to fires as well as predicting where they may occur and what may happen.”
The team of scientists said they'll be continuing research on how to implement all this knowledge to improve modeling and get better at forecasting future wildfires.
“Because whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to forecast,” warned Parisien. “We’re going to be asked to provide answers. We better make sure we provide thoughtful answers.”