07/14/2014 09:11 EDT | Updated 09/13/2014 05:59 EDT

‘Tornadoes Of Fire' In N.W.T. Linked To Climate Change


Climate change is responsible for more frequent and larger forest fires, such as the ones now plaguing the Northwest Territories, says an Edmonton professor.

“What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of Wildland Fire in the University of Alberta’s renewable resources department. “Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

This weekend, the wildfires left a 13-kilometre-long scar along the main highway up to Yellowknife, forced an evacuation of a fishing lodge on Great Slave Lake and had cabin owners fearing for their properties.

According to Flannigan, about 8,000 fires burn about two million hectares of land each year in Canada — an area about half the size of Nova Scotia. 

But Flannigan says two million hectares are double the average area lost each year in the 1970s.

“Some attribute that to climate change and I’m one of those.”

Dave Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, say the southern part of the N.W.T. is experiencing the driest conditions in 50 years and warmer temperatures than usual.

“It’s just almost as if there’s no weather around,” he says. “We’ve seen, for example, in the last six weeks, precipitation in Yellowknife is only about 20 per cent of what it should be. You’re just not seeing any rain.”

Phillips says apart for a 30 per cent chance of rain Monday night, there’s no rain on the horizon for the next two months.

He agrees the conditions are the kind of thing models predicted would happen 40 years from now.

“Not enough weather in some areas and too much weather in other areas,” he says, pointing to the flooding in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

“The one thing that doesn’t exist anymore is normal weather: something in between. It is a bit of a downer.”

'Tornadoes of fire'

Spencer Decorby has seen it up close.

Last weekend, he and a small group of family and friends took on a fire burning right up to the edge of his father’s cabin about 80 kilometres east of Yellowknife.

“There was at times a wall of flame a couple of storeys high,” he says. “There were literally tornadoes of fire in the treetops and when they were crowning, they’d literally explode in front of us.”

Maureen Tonga has a cabin on Reid Lake, where a fire has been burning for weeks. 

"Friends of ours that live across the lake, they have a hill behind them and they were able to climb up the hill and actually see smoke and flames from where they are."

Firefighters from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources provided pumps and hoses, but no people. Stretched to the limit, it says cabin owners can’t count on the department for help.  

Instead, it’s recommending cabin owners FireSmart their property, by doing things like clearing brush, keeping water handy and moving fuel tanks away from buildings. 

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