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The Best Place in the World to Set a Forest Fire

Brian Castner

“Up here we can go to the 95th percentile, the worst conditions.”

Photo: kwest/Shutterstock

This is the third installment in a series of dispatches. Follow along here.

NORMAN WELLS, NWT—In mid-July, about halfway through a 1,200-mile canoe trip down the Mackenzie River, I awoke to find a layer of ash covering my tent. The source was obvious: The day before I had paddled past a growing forest fire just south and east of the oil town of Norman Wells.

The fire looked relatively small and manageable—a few smoking pockets in the black spruce that hazed the sky a sickly brown—but it was fought with the ferocity of a major blaze. At least three orange airplanes dropped retardant in a continuous circuit, helicopters toted huge buckets of water via steel cables attached to their undersides, and a local brushfire crew worked all day to steer the blaze away from the town. Norman Wells is the hub for drilling and refining in the Mackenzie Valley, and any fire, even a small one, could potentially threaten the pipeline running to northern Alberta. It was jarring, the sudden density of people and materiel. The week prior, I went days without seeing a single other soul.

It was the first live fire I saw, though I had been prepared for far worse. In 2014, the Northwest Territories had their worst fire season in thirty years; the government spent eight times its planned firefighting budget but still lost 3.5 million hectares of forest, an area the size of New Jersey and Massachusetts combined.

Read more: Wildfire Researchers Tell Us Why Our Future Is Flames

That year, in Jean Marie River, a small community in the southern Mackenzie Valley, fire raged all about the town, to the west, the east, even on the opposite shore.

"There was a lightning strike across the river," said Rufus Sanguez, a Dene man who saw the fire start. When I met Rufus, he was fixing his boat on shore, less than a mile from the skeletal remains of the burn. "Big billowy smoke, then flame. Sixty feet over the black spruce. They told the elders they couldn't go outside. For the air quality."

The fire near Norman Wells. Photo courtesy the author

Jean Marie is so small, they had no hope of fighting the fire themselves. When I asked Rufus if he worried about the blaze enveloping the town, he shrugged. He could always temporarily escape on his boat, I realized.

As human settlements push further into wilderness, as that wilderness warms and dries with climate change, the risk to people and property will only grow. Which is where Jim Thomasson, a wildfire researcher with the non-profit FP Innovations, comes in.

Thomasson is a middle-aged engineer, glasses and stubbly beard, a smiling but intense look. His work has taken him around the world, from de-mining operations in Afghanistan to forestry in Sweden. He and I met in Fort Providence, just upriver of Jean Marie, where he was living and working for the summer. Thomasson needs the space only the Northwest Territories can provide, because, see, Thomasson sets fires for a living now. The biggest, nastiest, hottest fires he can, and then he lets them burn.

"Up here we can go to the 95th percentile, the worst conditions," Thomasson told me.

In other words, there may be no better place in the world to do forest fire research than the vast Northwest Territories.

Video: International Crown Fire Modeling Experiment

At a specially prepared site just north of Fort Providence, away from anything valuable—people, property, commercial timber, traditional hunting lands—and where the potential for escape is low, Thomasson and his team will spend years preparing a chunk of forest for extreme fire. Two decades ago, the same site was used for the International Crown Fire Modeling Experiment, a series of massive burns that proved a watershed in scientists' understanding of how wildfire moves from treetop to treetop in extreme conditions. Today, the research has shifted to mitigation strategies.

"We're looking at different community protection ideas," Thomasson said. The United States and Canada have developed building codes and standards for homes placed in high risk areas. Researchers like Thomasson test those standards, to see whether they hold up when fires are at their worst.

This summer, humidity, temperature, and wind conditions were finally right for Thomasson and his team to conduct two burns on portions of the forest they had prepped, four years before. One site tested whether strips of mulch, spread across the ground between trees as one would see on a walking path at the local playground, would reduce the intensity of crown fire. That proved successful.

Less useful was a foil wrap system attached to the exterior of buildings. The year before, NASA had tested a similar system as an emergency shelter for firefighters, using the skin off re-entry vehicles. But in Thomassan's test, the foil protected the interior of the structure only if the fire was far enough away. Too close, and buildings become baked potatoes. In all fairness, Thomassan's measurement equipment, set up inside the burn site, didn't fare much better.

"We melted the sacrificial wide angle adapters off five of eight cameras!" he said with pride.

Fort McMurray wildfire, May 1, 2016. Photo: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

Such research is proving more and more relevant, as fires are becoming disaster-sized events that threaten entire communities.

"Look at Fort McMurray," Thomassan said, referencing the May wildfire that grew into the most expensive in Canadian history; 88,000 people had to be evacuated in just three hours. "Who would have thought that a fire that was only a couple hundred hectares would grow exponentially and go full bore into a town like that?"

Travel support for this series was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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