Extreme fire hazard persists

By Merna Emara
Staff Writer

The fires in northwestern Ontario are at unprecedented levels with drought and lightning taking most of the credit.

Chris Marchand, fire information officer with the Aviation Forest Fire and Emergency Services centre in Dryden, said the numbers of new fire starts is a cause for concern.

There are currently 165 active fires in the region. Of these fires, 84 fires are not under control, 13 fires are being held, 48 are being observed and 20 fires are under control. There were 70 new fires reported in the last 24 hours.

“That’s the result of lightning that’s been tracking through our regions during these drought-like conditions,” Marchand said. “The firefighters were able to call 11 fires out and we’re seeing a real focus on responding quickly to new fires, and trying to reduce the number of active fires on the landscape.”

The increased fire activity led to an implementation order being issued in the Red Lake District in order to restrict access to the area.

A contingent of 103 Mexican firefighters were welcomed at Toronto’s Pearson Airport by MPP Greg Rickford, enroute to northern Ontario. They will join local crews to battle the more than 150 fires burning across northern Ontario. The contingent last assisted Ontario in 2018. – Submitted photo

An implementation order is a tool that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) uses that enables them to close roads and evacuate areas that might be threatened by wildfires.

There are also fires of concern to populated communities. A fire called Red Lake 51 is of concern to the neighbouring communities. This fire is located about 27 kilometers west of Deer Lake First Nation. This fire is about 45,776 hectares in size.

While there is some distance, Marchand said, the fire behaviour they have been seeing in recent weeks can travel significant distances under the wrong conditions. The ministry of the Solicitor General is in the process of conducting an evacuation of that community, Marchand added.

Red Lake 65, located south of Deer Lake, is also a fire of concern to Poplar Hill First Nation. This fire is located about 10 kilometers southwest of Poplar Hill First Nation.

“There’s Red Lake 77, which is the fire of concern to the community of Red Lake,” Marchand said. “That fire is 17,120 hectares and it’s located approximately 36 kilometers west of Red Lake. The municipality has taken some steps to prepare for potential evacuation should that fire pose a direct threat to the community, as well as to protect some critical infrastructure.”

There are also five fires in the southern part of Quetico Park that are still being observed. One of them has reached the international boundary called Fort Frances 35 and it is 638 hectares.

If they cross the international boundaries the US officials might take actions on their side.

“When we were clearing up with extreme fire behaviour, we’re limited to air attack and aerial ignition as a way to fight and steer them away from values on the landscapes that we like to protect,” Marchand said. “When we have drought-like conditions, fires tend to burn deeper into the ground, as deep as 45 centimetres. It takes longer to put out a fire that is burning deeper into the ground, and more resources to extinguish that fire.”

To help prevent new fires, the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry has halted a number of construction, forestry and mining operations, including road construction, stripping, chipping, brush sawing and welding.

To date, the northwest has seen 521 fires and the province as a whole has seen 679. Last year, the province had 403 fires. Fires to date for the 10-year average would be 441 versus the 679 the province has seen this year.

The 10-year average of hectares burned to date is 144,881. The total hectares to date we have seen is 404,231.

“We’re definitely seeing above average fires in 2021,” Marchand said. “We really have had very little in terms of meaningful widespread rainfall over the entire region for weeks now and to look into the forecast there isn’t much hope for to see any of that rainfall coming through the region.”

During this season of extreme fire activity, Marchand said they need the public’s help in trying to avoid human-caused fires and therefore outdoor fires are strictly prohibited.

“And that’s quite an important element in the sense that human-caused fires tend to happen very close to settlements and people in property, where in these types of conditions, there is not much time to respond to a fire that can spread very quickly,” Marchand said.

Marchand said they have had a few reports of people using fireworks, mainly in the Kenora region. He added that this activity is very discouraged.

“If you use fireworks, you are responsible to see that those are extinguished, and the residue from them are extinguished,” Marchand said. “If a wildland fire is caused by fireworks, you can be held responsible for the cost of extinguishing that fire.”

In order to assist with the fire situation, Marchand said the province of Ontario is welcoming the help of 103 Mexican firefighters who will be deployed to assist with the province’s fire situation in the coming days.

“We have this contingent of Mexican firefighters,” Marchand said. “They last visited the province in 2018, during our escalated fire season in the northeast. And they’re coming to the northwest side of the province’s time. We also have nine personnel from Wisconsin and four water bomber aircrafts from Quebec who are also helping to bolster our resources.”