Northwest Territories in the grip of blazes | Polarjournal
The fires that have ravaged the Canadian north and west since the beginning of the year have already burned 14 million hectares of forest. Currently, the Northwest Territories are particularly hard hit. Map: Fire Information for Resource Management System US/Canada

Tens of thousands of people evacuated, millions of hectares of forests going up in flames, cities plunged into smoke. Images from Canada reveal the devastating forest fires that are hitting the western part of the country, particularly the Northwest Territories. And it’s hard to predict the consequences for the boreal forest, which continues to burn.

Last May, the Northwest Territories (NWT) authorities had already made clear: this summer will see devastating forest fires, a consequence of the high temperatures which had affected the region during spring. Unfortunately, authorities were right. Faced with the situation, the NWT government had to declare a state of emergency on August 15 and evacuate some of its population.

On Monday, however hope instead of ember was rekindled as cooler temperatures combined with favourable winds and some rain are now allowing NWT firefighters to take the offensive. Until now, firefighters mainly had been forced to confine the fires’ extent and intensity, especially around Yellowknife. While the latter has been emptied of its 20,000 inhabitants, evacuating populated areas in the northern territories can quickly pose a logistical problem, as roads are rarer there than in the south of the country.

Anything was done to prevent the flames from devouring the city of Yellowknife. Helicopters ignited treetops to create fire lines, while 160 hectares of trees were cut down to create a 25 km firebreak. Photo: Screenshot City of Yellowknife / Facebook

While there is hope that the fire will be contained in the coming days around Yellowknife, this will not necessarily count for other communities that see the fires getting closer. Especially the populations of Fort Smith in the south and Hay River in the west of the NWT, whose populations of 3,500 and 2,500 inhabitants respectively, will likely face a difficult week with evacuation looming.

More than 230 fires are currently ravaging the NWT, while a thousand blazes have destroyed thousands of hectares of forest from the east coast to the west coast of Canada. Since the beginning of the year, 14 million hectares have fallen victim to fires, releasing one billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, according to estimates by the Canadian Forest Service. That’s the equivalent of Japan’s annual carbon dioxide production. Sadly, the forest fires that rage this year are breaking all records.

While the fires have hit Western Canada hard – two-thirds of NWT residents have had to leave their homes – they are also affecting the rest of the country. Nearly 170,000 residents have been evacuated across the nation, while entire regions are affected by the smoke generated by the fires. Nunavut, for example, had to warn its population to limit intense outdoor activities and keep doors and windows closed.

What future for the boreal forest?

Beyond the humanitarian aspect, what about the reaction of flora and fauna to these massive fires?

Boreal forests can recover from wildfires, as they are part of the normal cycle of these forests. The problem, however, lies in the intensity of these fires, as well as in episodes of high heat and droughts.

Plant species that make up a boreal forest will find it increasingly difficult to regenerate in the future, given the conditions now imposed by global warming. This should favor other species at the expense of conifers. Photo : Gabriel Picard, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As Ellen Whitman, forest fire research scientist at Natural Resources Canada, pointed out to CBC Radio Canada, other, more fire-resistant species could emerge and replace the current ones, changing the face of Canada’s boreal forests. This means that the forest will grow back, but not in the same way, with conifers being replaced by broadleaf trees in a less dense forest.

Certain animal species, such as wood bison, buffalo and moose, which appreciate open, grassy spaces, could benefit. Caribou, on the other hand, are less likely to adapt to a transformed habitat. In addition, controlled burning and wetland restoration could provide solutions to prevent millions of hectares going up in smoke in future as forest fires get out of control.

Featured image: NASA

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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