Under the right weather and forest fuel moisture conditions, the forests of the Northwest Territories (NWT), support high-intensity wildland fires that are virtually unstoppable. These fires are often naturally occurring, with the potential to spread quickly over great distances and to place people and community infrastructure at risk.
In this environment and under these conditions, an organized approach to managing wildland fires is required.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), Forest Management Division, provides wildland fire management services. These include wildland fire prevention, detection, situation assessment and fire suppression action.
There are, on average, 224 wildland fires each year in the NWT. Eighty-eight percent of these fires are caused by lightning. Other causes include people and industry.
All suspected person-caused fires are investigated.
A change in approach
For much of the 20th century, putting out fires (known as fire suppression) was the goal with every wildland fire. Often costly to achieve, it was generally successful, though to the detriment of ecological values.
By the 1970s, the ecological benefits of wildland fire were becoming known. Forest managers were realizing that suppression was not always necessary or desirable. Today, wildland fire management includes a range of levels of fire suppression, from complete extinguishment to little or no intervention at all.
The decision to fight a wildland fire or to leave it to burn out naturally is based on a hierarchy of priorities set by the government agency responsible for fire management where the fire is burning. In most of Canada’s forests, provincial and territorial agencies have the responsibility for wildland fire management. Areas where federal government agencies are responsible include national parks and military bases.
In the NWT, high-priority areas for protection include residential areas, high-value commercial forests and recreational sites. Low-priority sites are generally wilderness parks and remote forests of limited economic value—although protection of rare habitat, culturally significant areas and similar values will influence suppression decisions.