NWT Wildfires: Where to Find Maps and Data

Events in Fort McMurray this week confirmed, on a barely fathomable scale, the return of wildfire season.

Canadians spent days watching frantic tweets, astonishing video and urgent updates from Fort McMurray as the entire northern Alberta city fled the flames.

In dealing with the tragedy, people shared information: maps of worst-affected neighbourhoods, diagrams of how the fire changed over time, and models of how it might yet develop.

On Thursday, Richard Olsen — the Northwest Territories’ fire operations manager — confirmed there are no active fires in the territory at the moment, but said ground conditions are “relatively dry” from Yellowknife to Fort Liard.

Fires are inevitable in the weeks to come. When they happen, the latest updates will appear on the territorial government’s website and the accompanying NWT Fire Facebook page that last year proved a valuable resource.

However, there’s a wealth of other realtime information elsewhere.

None of it is likely to save your life — basic precautions, like FireSmarting and knowing your community’s emergency plan are better ways to prepare — but it might help you figure out what to expect, and when.

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The following is your EDGE guide to some of the best resources out there.

Bookmark this one first

The simplest one-stop shop for fire information in the territory up till now has been nwtfire.com, which this year redirects to a new page set up by the territory’s department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

On the left you’ll find a menu with various options: you can see a list of current wildland fires (none at the time of writing, May 5), information on ways to protect yourself, how to get involved if you’re looking for work, and maps.

At the moment, clicking the ‘maps’ tab leads to a page declaring: “Content under development.” In previous years, ENR has operated a simple, interactive Google map showing small fire symbols for each of the territory’s active wildfires. ENR says a new map should appear within the next week.

If you can’t wait that long, it is by no means the only map out there. The internet boasts a large number of maps showing you different aspects of the territory’s wildland fire outlook.

For the love of MODIS

The US Department of Agriculture is home to some of those maps. The department operates an exceptionally helpful website aggregating fires detected by a series of satellite-borne instruments: MODIS, VIIRS and GOES.

Click on one of those links and then click on the Northwest Territories to get the most recent map. If you’re spoilt for choice, MODIS is a good one used by municipalities to assess fire activity.

MODIS and VIRRS take thermal observations from two satellites in polar orbit (those circling the planet from top to bottom, if you like, by crossing both poles). GOES lives on geostationary satellites. They each detect fires based on the relative heat intensity of each patch of the Earth they cross.

Sticking with MODIS as an example, when you reach the NWT page, hit the “JPEG Image” link to load a high-resolution map of the territory. Right now, it’ll be blank because there haven’t been any fires yet.

A MODIS map from July 2014 showing burn areas and active fires in the North Slave

To see it in action, here’s one from July 2014. It looks a lot different. The yellow is all fire activity detected since the start of that year; the red, as you’ll see from the key, shows fires burning within the past day.

Systems like MODIS aren’t perfect and can sometimes display anomalies if there’s a glitch — this is not cast-iron proof of forest fires. However, it is a reliable way to gauge how much of the territory has burned and is burning. This MODIS map from September 2014 shows just how much of the territory burned that year, particularly along the highway from Behchoko to Fort Providence.

Each of these maps is updated three times daily, so bookmark them for an up-to-date way to see where fires are burning, their extent, and what has burned so far. If you want a much simpler map showing Canada’s major wildfires, the USDA has that too.

Where’s that smoke coming from?

Stepping outside of your house and smelling smoke is a fairly common summer occurrence in most NWT communities. But where’s the fire?

You can get an insight into this by opening FireSmoke.ca’s smoke forecasts, which will take you to the latest forecast for western Canada, including the NWT.

A smoke dispersal forecast from FireSmoke.ca for May 7, showing smoke produced by the Fort McMurray forest fire and others

The map shows the movement of ground-level forest fire smoke over time. Green is a fairly light but noticeable concentration; dark red is heavy smoke — the kind that has blanketed Yellowknife a few times over preceding summers.

The smoke forecast loops through roughly 36 hours with a new frame for every hour, so you get a moving map of where the smoke is expected to go over the next day-and-a-half. If you check it regularly this summer, you’ll see that smoke affecting your community is often traceable to a fire quite far away, sometimes in a southern province.

This map, while developed with federal and provincial government support, takes pains to bill itself as an experimental product, so treat its forecasts with caution.

A slightly lower-tech alternative is offered by the US in the shape of its Hazard Mapping System. This gives you a basic map of fires (red) and smoke distribution (white) which you can interpret using the text summary published alongside it.

Want to know how the smoke’s affecting air quality? Environment Canada publishes data and forecasts for Yellowknife and Inuvik.

Extreme danger, extreme colours

The Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS) website hosts the brightly coloured fire danger maps often seen in northern reports on the prospect of wildfires.

These maps show, according to CWFIS, “how easy it is to ignite vegetation, how difficult a fire may be to control, and how much damage a fire may do.” Red means extreme danger and is the one to watch out for.

The fire danger forecast for May 6, in which Yellowknife and the area around Fort Liard display a ‘high’ risk of fire

If you open the dropdown menu above the fire danger map, you’ll see numerous other maps showing variables like moisture codes and the drought code. You can use these options to see how dry the local area is at any given point.

A number above 400 is considered a drought. Checking the map shows most of the NWT below that figure, with the exception of the area around Fort Liard. In 2014’s incredibly severe fire season, the drought code reached 1,024 near Fort Providence — possibly the worst reading in four decades.

You can also use CWFIS to access fire hotspot maps, which essentially combine data from earlier sources we examined such as MODIS and VIIRS.

Something slightly different, and incredibly detailed, offered here is a series of maps on fire behaviour. These let you examine things like the intensity on the frontline of each fire, the type of fire, and the speed at which each fire appears to be spreading. Many fires in Canada are already moving at more than 25 metres per minute, or upwards of 36 kilometres in a day.

CWFIS also publishes a national situation report detailing the number of fires burning across Canada, which are under control and uncontrolled, information on “fires of note” and a weekly synopsis providing a valuable overview.

World wildfires

Lastly, here are three interesting ways to study global wildfire information.

The first is NASA’s Worldview, which combines the very latest satellite imagery with fire hotspots.

The second is the Global Wildfire Information System, which plots the fire danger forecast worldwide and gives the NWT situation broader context — you can easily see how the fire danger here compares with other parts of Canada, the US and the world. (Have a scroll around: a surprisingly large number of places are on fire.)

And finally, tangentially connected to wildfires but one of the best-looking data visualizations out there: this global wind map of Earth. Click ‘Earth’ in the bottom left corner, if the menu is not already open, to access a bewildering range of options. In theory, that link should load a global map of sulfur dioxide spread (sulfur dioxide being a product of forest fires, among other sources) with worldwide wind patterns overlaid.

What will this summer look like on these maps?

It’s too early to tell.

“We had a fairly wet fall in some places in the NWT…and a fair amount of snow cover,” Olsen told reporters on Thursday. “Generally speaking, this left us with some relief in some areas, but we’re still looking at ground conditions that are relatively dry from the area of Yellowknife down to Fort Liard.”

Olsen said temperatures have been average to above-average, but then so is snow cover in most locations.

“There are some indications that the amount of precipitation is going to be a little bit more than we experienced last year,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Forest Service said conditions in western provinces are far hotter and drier than is usually the case. Olsen, however, said it’s not quite so bad in the territory.

“We’re probably only a week or so above what we would normally be expecting to see in terms of ice break-up or snow disappearance,” Olsen said. Fire season in the NWT is considered, in the territory’s legislation, to begin on May 1 each year.

“Other places, as early as March, were starting to see some fire conditions down on the Prairies, in southern Alberta and into B.C.,” he added.

“We’re aware and being wary of what the conditions are, just making sure we have things prepared and in place and we’re able to respond when conditions dictate.”


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