MNR studies fires fueled by wind-fallen trees

Extreme weather is influencing the way firefighters prepare for forest fires in the future.

Timber blown down by wind storms makes for extremely hot, hard-to-control fires

The Okanse Lake, Ont. prescribed burn was located about 90 kilometres northeast of Ear Falls, and 94 kilometres east of Red Lake, between Woman Lake and Cook Lake. This prescribed burn is providing a research opportunity to help understand the specific fire behaviour related to wind-storm damaged forests. (Ministry of Natural Resources)

Extreme weather is influencing the way firefighters prepare for forest fires in the future.

The Ministry of Natural Resources said it hopes prescribed burns it's conducted this week will help it understand how to deal with fires in forests that have numerous trees fallen by windstorms.

MNR spokesperson Steve Toman said sections of trees that have been knocked down by wind are occurring with greater regularity in the northwest. When a fire hits these areas, also called "blowdowns," fire crews are challenged while battling the blaze.

This prescribed burn near Horse Lake, Ont. was done using aerial ignition with a Helitorch machine. The Horse Lake prescribed burn was a 620-hectare burn, about 50 kilometres northeast of Sioux Lookout, between McDuff Lake and Tully Lake. (Ministry of Natural Resources)

"It's very difficult to fight these fires when the fire's actually inside the blowdown," said the fire operations supervisor with Red Lake Fire Management Headquarters.

"Crews gotta get in. They gotta chainsaw … cut their way in. What we've seen in the past is a great buildup of intensity when it gets into this fuel because there's a jackpot of fuel that's on the ground."

Toman said the intensity of heat poses a safety issue for fire fighters — as well as a fire-control issue.

"When a wildfire gets in there the heat is extreme," he said.

"It will preheat the upcoming standing timber. It becomes a control issue"  

Experts will analyze fire behaviour in the prescribed burns the ministry conducted in storm-damaged forests in the Red Lake and Sioux Lookout districts. The information is hoped to help the MNR "better understand how [these fires] behave so maybe we don't actively suppress them," Toman said. "We can possibly use a modified approach."

The prescribed burns are also hoped to help reclaim some natural habitat for the Woodland Caribou population, in addition to reducing the fire hazard in the area which has experienced storm damage between 2001 and 2007.