Slow start expected for Yukon fire season

Yukon emergency officials shared some good news on Thursday — the wildfire risk is expected to be fairly low to moderate until at least next month.

Mike Smith, a meteorologist with Yukon Wildland Fire Management says that’s because things are not expected to dry up anytime soon. He said most regions have seen a lot of precipitation over the winter, and temperatures have been fairly normal.

“That has all played into keeping a lot of snow cover on the ground, and keeping the fire danger down to low or zero across the territory, quite a bit later than last year,” Smith said at a news briefing on Thursday.

Last spring saw record-setting temperatures in March, quickly melting snow in many regions and increasing the risk of early-season fires. By mid-May, firefighters were battling a growing blaze near Haines Junction.

Smith says even once this year’s snow melts, the forest isn’t expected to dry too quickly.

“That means when we do get fires near the start of the season, they’ll typically just burn the grass, the twigs, the smaller things and will be a lot easier to put out,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean we could not get a windy day and large fire, but it means when we put water on the fire it’s more likely to be effective.”

Smoke can be seen from a wildfire burning near Haines Junction last May. (Submitted by Lloyd Freese)

Things will start to get a lot drier in the forest in June, he said.

“By the time we get into July, we may start to deal with periodically higher fire dangers,” he said.

Smith said the long-range summer forecast says most of the territory should see relatively normal temperatures this summer, although the Old Crow area could be a little warmer than average.

Adapting to a pandemic

The wildfire season officially began in Yukon at the beginning of April, meaning crews were on hand and ready to respond if necessary.

They’re making some adjustments this year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Damien Burns, director of Wildland Fire Management, said that means limiting public access to their bases and also increasing cleaning and sanitization procedures.

Officials have also had to think about how crews will get around during a fire.

“During actual fire suppression operations, crews do need to travel by helicopter or by truck and as such would not be able to follow the … physical distancing protocols,” Burns said.

He said officials will consult with the chief medical officer about protocols for things such as cleaning aircraft, and ensuring that crews have the necessary personal protective equipment.

Burns said another wrinkle this year is that there might not be as much resource sharing between jurisdictions. During a typical fire season, Yukon might see firefighters sent from provinces, to help out as needed. Or, Yukon firefighters might go help elsewhere. 

“We anticipate that the exchange of resources is a lot more limited and less desirable this year. So we are preparing really to handle the fireload with the resources that exist in the Yukon,” he said.

“And I certainly feel that these are very adequate resources.”

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