N.W.T. adapts wildfire strategy to mitigate COVID-19 risks

The Northwest Territories is changing its firefighting strategy this season to rely less on crews from other jurisdictions in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Part of this means ramping up efforts to seek out and deal with fires when they’re still small to avoid having to fly in crews from elsewhere, Richard Olsen, wildfire operations manager, said during a media briefing on Tuesday. 

The department is also adding fire crews, support staff and extra aircraft to detect and extinguish wildfires. 

The government plans to spend nearly $4 million more than expected on wildfire management this year, according to 2020-2021 supplementary budget documents. It’s unclear how much of this proposed extra spending is a result of COVID-19.

Outside crews to stay in ‘bubble’

Environment and Natural Resources has been working with Protect NWT to “pre-qualify” outside firefighters who can be flown in quickly, if necessary, said Olsen.

“We’ve sort of pre-worked our way through [administrative procedures] and can bring in crews or overhead positions almost as a bubble,” said Olsen. 

These crews would stay in a separate camp, and wouldn’t come into contact with N.W.T. fire crews, he said. 

Olsen said firefighters across the country are being told to monitor daily for symptoms.

More ‘eyes in the sky’

Commercial airlines are responsible for reporting a significant number of the territory’s wildfires, but with fewer planes flying during the pandemic, “we needed to get a few more people up in the air for eyes in the sky,” Olsen said. 

“We’ve been pretty vigilant on detection but we’re trying to be a lot more vigilant this year, so we’ve put some more resources into additional short-term aircraft,” he said.

One of the largest forest fires in the territory last year burned near Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T. The government is adding fire crews, support staff and extra aircraft to detect and extinguish wildfires this year. (Copernicus EMS/Twitter)

The Northwest Territories is poised for an average fire season, Olsen said, with ground conditions that have been “fairly dry in a lot of areas for a couple weeks now.” 

As of Tuesday afternoon there had been 16 wildfires reported, affecting 4,689 hectares. Two of those fires were being fought, while 10 had been put out, and the rest were being reassessed or monitored. 

We’ve been pretty vigilant on detection but we’re trying to be a lot more vigilant this year.– Richard Olsen, N.W.T. wildfire operations manager

Of those fires being fought on Tuesday, one was about 40 kilometres east of Hay River, N.W.T., and 3.5 hectares in size. This lightning-caused fire was expected to be brought under control within the day, Amber Simpson, wildfire information officer with the Environment and Natural Resources Department, said during Tuesday’s briefing. 

The other was a fire was about 82 kilometres northwest of Whati, that was one hectare large at the time of the briefing.

Smouldering near Legislative Assembly

On Monday, fire crews returning to Yellowknife in a helicopter noticed smoke in a wooded area near the Legislative Assembly. The small human-caused fire was extinguished in short order. 

“The fire itself was reported as just smoldering, a small size, it wasn’t reported with any kind of active flame or growth,” said Olsen, adding that it was about the area of a picnic table.

Nine of the 16 fires were started by people, he said, which is slightly below the average of 17 human-caused fires by this time of year.

Last Friday, a citywide fire ban was issued for Yellowknife, right before the National Indigenous Day long weekend. 

People who spot a fire can call the N.W.T. fire hotline 1-877-698-3473.

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