Wildfire is as common in the Yukon as camping and bear sightings. There are roughly 150 wildfires in the territory every fire season.
If the summer is hot, it is likely smoky. It is the responsibility of the Yukon Wildland Fire Management program to suppress wildfires or allow them to burn naturally.
This summer What’s up Yukon will be running a series of articles on the Yukon Wildland Fire Management program. From when and how fires are fought to stories that showcase the equipment used to do so, we will take you inside the Yukon Wildland Fire Management program.
Mike Sparks has been managing wildfire for more than 35 years. Beginning as a teenager in Alberta and then moving north, he is now the Manager of Wildfire Operations for the Yukon Wildland Fire Management (WFM) program.
“We are a small organization that focuses in and around communities,” Sparks says. “We are an initial attack organization, we attack quick and aggressively while the fire is small.”
Just 23 crews comprised of 69 initial attack firefighters are staffed each fire season.
Positioned in fire districts throughout the territory they are responsible for a land mass large enough to hold the states of California, Arizona, Delaware and West Virginia.
It would seem a daunting task, then, to provide coverage for such a vast area. So how is it done?
Firstly, in addition to its 23 crews, extra emergency firefighters can be hired during periods of increased fire activity.
Wildland Fire Management also relies on assistance from the air. Every May, two airtanker groups are contracted for the fire season. Airtankers are used to assist the firefighters by boxing-in fires. An environmentally-friendly retardant is released to slow their spread.
In total, six aircraft make up the airtanker groups. In one group is the L-188 Electra. It is a former passenger plane that is capable of carrying more than 11,000 litres of retardant.
The other group contains three former crop dusters known as Air Tractors. They’re smaller than the Electra, but they make up for it with maneuverability.
These airtankers are supported by smaller airplanes known as Bird-dogs. Bird-dogs guide the larger planes and direct the retardant drops.
Wildland Fire Management also hires helicopters as they’re needed. They’re used to transport crews and drop water when required.
Above all, what really helps Wildland Fire Management manage Yukon’s fire season is the way it divides the Yukon’s forested area into five zones.
Fires are responded to based on location and zone.
The program’s mandate is to prevent the threat of personal injury, loss of life, and community damages caused by wildfires. The zones let that mandate be carried out. They range from complete fire control and suppression around high value areas such as communities (zone 1) to environmentally conscious response in wilderness areas, where fires can play out their natural role as a process in maintaining healthy and functioning forest ecosystems.
Wildland Fire Management has partnerships with the City of Whitehorse and volunteer fire departments across the territory. These partnerships are also key a key factor is fire management.
If they need to, Wildland Fire Management can call on the Mutual Aid Resources Sharing agreement. This enables the sharing of firefighting personnel between jurisdictions. This spring, for example, 30 Yukon firefighters were sent to Fort McMurray to provide assistance.
In the end, possibly the most important factor in fire management is the public. By burning responsibly, burning only when and where permitted, and ensuring all fires are extinguished, you are doing your part to support Wildland Fire Management.
The public helps by reporting dozens of fires every year, as well.
Fire Information Officer George Maratos says the public plays an important role: “Without their support our fire seasons would be much more challenging to manage.”