MNR wary of early fire season

FORT FRANCES—With far below average snowfall this winter, and a dry summer and fall before that, the stage is set for a possibly early and very busy fire season for the local Ministry of Natural Resources.
“Right now, we’re probably at 30 percent of our normal range with snowfall. We’re at the ’58 or ’59 snow levels. It’s the lowest amount of snow we’ve had in almost 50 years,” said local forest fire management supervisor Harrold Boven.
“We went into the winter with drought-like conditions. Everything was dry and, up until this point, we haven’t the snow,” he added. “Water lines are freezing and water levels are low on the lakes.
“We’re monitoring it. As the snow goes, we’re anticipating that there may be a need to restrict open air burning sooner,” continued Boven.
“We’re asking who’s looking at doing any agricultural or industrial-type burning prior the fire season starting should check with their local municipal office or the MNR.
“They’re responsible for that fire, so let’s do it so it doesn’t cause problems.”
While the weather forecast can always change, and Rainy River District may end up having a very wet spring like in 2005, Boven noted current data for the 90-day outlook for precipitation in February-April doesn’t look like there will be any significant snowfall or rain.
“It’s going to take quite a bit of rain—I think in the 100-mm range—to get things into the normal range. That’s four or five inches of rain,” he remarked.
“The short long-range looks like we’re going into a dry spring with above normal temperatures. But we need to play it day-by-day,” added Boven.
Boven noted the MNR met with municipal fire chiefs in January to discuss the low snow levels and potential dry spring conditions. “The possibility could exist that we may need to go into the spring with earlier restrictions,” he reiterated.
“If the snow were to go away sooner, then everything is drier quicker because the run-off isn’t there,” he stressed.
“So then open air burning would be restricted sooner because the moisture levels aren’t in the ground, especially in the peat areas where you don’t want fires to go down and cause more problems.”
Boven noted four peat fires in the district currently are being watched, including one in Barwick, one in Stratton, and two in Dawson Township.
“With the areas where we have the peat fires right now, some action will need to be taken by the landowners jointly to prevent them from spreading where they currently are,” said Boven.
“Some of the landowners have done some action on them, some of them haven’t.
“But there’s dead grass right beside them. If the snow goes on a dry, windy day in the spring, you’re going to see ‘sprint’ coming out of the peat,” he warned.
“A lot of things could still happen—if we do get the moisture levels, some of them may go out. The municipal fire departments and landowners are going to need to monitor them.”
Last month, the MNR flew a plane over the region to monitor the land and check for fire activity “to make sure there’s no surprises in the spring,” said Boven.
“There were almost 140 fires going into the fall that weren’t ‘out,’ so to speak. That was a concern going into the fall—that with the amount of moisture, they would get into the roots or old roadbeds and smoulder all winter,” he remarked.
But Boven noted “nothing was observed in the area” during the January fly-over. The MNR is looking at doing an infrared sweep in the near future.
The MNR’s fire season officially runs from April 1-Oct. 31 each year.
Last year’s fire season started off with an average amount of activity, but soon became extremely hectic for the MNR, with fires happening in separate concentrated bursts of activity in July, August, and especially September.
There ended up being a total of more than 1,700 fires last season, consuming 144,500 hectares.
This was 1,000 more fires than the 10-year average of 716, but the hectarage burned was, in fact, lower than the 10-year average of 180,000 ha.