Travel restrictions reviewed in wake of Piney forest fire

The province is re-examining its rules for back-country travel after a massive wildfire erupted in southeast Manitoba on the weekend.
Smoke from the fire in the Sandilands Provincial Forest billows into the southeastern Manitoba sky. ((Manitoba Conservation))
The province is re-examining its rules for back-country travel after a massive wildfire erupted in southeast Manitoba on the weekend.

The fire, which is still burning, has consumed more than 3,400 hectares of timber in the Sandilands Provincial Forest, located in the rural municipality of Piney in southeastern Manitoba.

The blaze began near Woodridge, Man., in the provincial forest early Saturday afternoon, as an all-terrain vehicle derby was being held in the area.

Fire investigators have not yet determined the cause of the blaze. 

John Rodgers, a district supervisor with Manitoba Conservation, said Mother Nature is not a suspect.

"We know it's human-caused because there was no lightning prior to the time the fire started."

Smoke and flames from the fire are visible in this aerial photo. ((Manitoba Conservation))

Piney Reeve Marvin Hovorka believes the fire was sparked by the ATVs.

"Obviously some of the machine started the fires there in that area," he told CBC News. "It's all a case of ATVs, under those conditions, will start a fire."

Given the hot, dry conditions, Hovorka said, the forest should be closed to certain types of activity.

"If there's conditions like this, like they do with the farm situation — stubble burning — farmers have to call in daily [to find out] whether they're authorized to burn or not. It's the department that determines that," he said.

But Bruce Bremner, an assistant deputy minister with Manitoba Conservation, said the ATV riders were doing nothing wrong by holding their derby in the area.

"Our firefighting level … during this weekend was at a level two, which we consider moderate. In the past, we've only imposed [back-country] travel restrictions when the level has reach four, which is extreme," he said.

The government is taking a look at whether it should change its guidelines for issuing travel restrictions, Bremner said, but he's cautious about moving in that direction.

"Moderate fire conditions are usually in place throughout the whole summer months, so we have to be careful that we don't move too far in one stream and impact recreational users in a whole host of back-country areas," he said.

Charred trees in an area consumed by the Sandilands fire. ((CBC))

The fire is the second in the area in a just over a year. A fire last spring in the same area burned a swath of the forest and resulted in the partial evacuation of the town of Vasser.

"It's a great disaster for the area, scenery-wise and in timber loss," said Piney Coun. Earl Sawka. "The industry of timber was very important for the area. Extensive timber loss will definitely affect the development and livelihood of local residents."

Sawka said it's too early to tell how many jobs will be lost in the municipality, which is home to about 1,600 people in a dozen small communities.

Officials with the province's fire program expect firefighters should be able to completely extinguish the blaze by the end of the week.