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What is NWT Fire doing to prepare for the 2024 wildfire season?

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It's about to get hot, it's already dry, and the Northwest Territories still have 95 percent of the trees they had before last summer.

If another severe wildfire season develops, what has the area's wildfire authority done to prepare for it, knowing what they know now about how bad things can get?

NWT Fire's Richard Olsen walked reporters through some of the area's plans at a briefing Thursday. Here are some of the steps Olsen says his team is taking.

Better access to people and equipment

The NWT is making stricter arrangements to get specialized equipment and more people when needed, Olsen said.

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“Last summer was unique in the way we were able to access a large amount of personnel and equipment that we never really had access to in previous years,” he said, citing the example of high-performance pumps and personnel, that serves to protect the community.

“We are looking at standing offer agreements and other types of contracts to ensure that these resources are available when we need them again and the processes to get them here work more efficiently and quickly.”

A member of the fire department in 2023. Photo: GNWT

Much of this preparation depends on working on better communication.

Olsen said work continues to improve coordination and communication with the NWT Department of Community and Municipal Affairs, which leads emergency management in the area and liaises with communities. It also works with external agencies such as the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which helps connect each province and territory.

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A big part of that preparation is “making sure we know who we're dealing with, the phone numbers, and what the emergency contacts and processes are going to be,” Olsen said.

Increased staffing levels to some extent

While the goal is to have more staff available this year, there will be no massive staffing changes.

“We think it will probably be OK to keep what we have and a few more permanent crews,” Olsen said. “We're also going into this with the understanding that we're training additional firefighters to come in as we go – maybe not people who will work all summer, but we definitely want a pool of people to come in and work for a “We can help a few weeks.”

Olsen said the goal is to have 140 to 144 permanent firefighters on duty this summer, with a pool of 200 to 250 qualified to be called up if needed.

“At this point it is assumed that we could definitely use a few more crews. Then we have the right compromise between too much and too little,” he said.

In some parts of the area, hiring has been “challenging,” Olsen added.

“In some areas we don’t have a lot of people interested in firefighting. Maybe they have other options or the demographics or the workforce has changed,” he said.

“There have been some challenges in making sure we have full staffing and we are working on that.”

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Aerial scanning

The first major aerial survey after remnant fires begins early next week.

Remnant fires are those that smolder under the snow cover throughout the winter, where it can remain relatively warm and the fires can burn deep in the undergrowth.

The NWT expects some of these fires to flare up again as the snow subsides, but no one knows exactly where they all are. Next week, infrared scanners will be flown over Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, Sambaa K'e and Fort Liard, as well as parts of the highway network, to try to detect locations of remnant fires.

NWT Fire will add these scans to existing incident fire reports and then develop a specific plan of attack for those fires, Olsen said.

Flights to assess the fire situation will continue through the remainder of April and into May.

Additional training, teams start early

In the Dehcho and South Slave regions, where the drought is the worst in the NWT, Olsen said training started early and some crews are already starting work.

“In the southern areas, snow has almost disappeared in areas surrounding communities, so conditions will soon move into fire season,” he said.

Teams that have already started will complete their training before being redeployed to deal with any fire operations at the start of the season.

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More helicopter power

NWT Fire expects to deploy helicopters to the southern portions of the territory earlier than usual, Olsen said.

A helicopter drops a bucket of water into a NWT forest. Photo: GNWT

The territorial government is also bringing in an additional, larger helicopter to spend parts of the summer fighting wildfires.

“We had problems last year with the high demand for helicopters. “It was difficult to find helicopters at times last summer, so we're going to staff an additional helicopter – and extend some of the appointments for the helicopters – to make sure we have at least a basic supply of what we need,” Olsen said.

Improving health and safety

Firefighter Adam Yeadon was 25 years old when he was killed by a falling tree near Fort Liard last summer.

Olsen said NWT Fire vows to once again focus on the health and safety of its crews this year.

“This is going to be the summer where we really want to make sure that we're slowing down for safety reasons – and that we're taking the time to make sure that we're looking around and taking all the necessary steps before we really push people up to top speed “Dangerous situations,” he said.

This means more training in improved first aid, chainsaw safety and hazardous tree assessment, as hazardous trees are considered at risk once a fire has burned out an area.

NWT Fire has also hired a fitness specialist to assist firefighters with their fitness testing and even work with them on their diet.

“We believe that if we truly demonstrate and demonstrate that fitness is important and directly related to your mental health for managing fatigue and all other aspects of safety, we will reduce the number of accidents and make people's performance safer.” said Olsen.

Last year, NWT Fire utilized GNWT's Employee Family Assistance Program to provide services such as counseling to firefighters. However, not every crew member or contractor is a GNWT employee, so there will be a few different options this year.