New Brunswick

Fire ban lifted earlier this week, despite no rain in some places

Without a drop of rain for weeks in some areas of the province, residents are wondering how New Brunswick could have gone from a provincewide burn ban to wide open — in just 24 hours. 

Province moved into yellow on Thursday afternoon

In 24 hours, the province went from a complete ban to wide open — despite getting little-to-no rain in most areas of the province during that time. (Twitter/Province of New Brunswick)

Without a drop of rain for weeks, Kim Totton wondered how New Brunswick could have gone from a province-wide burn ban to wide open — in just 24 hours. 

"I just happened to be looking and I thought, geez, they've got us so that we can have a fire now. And I said, we've got no rain. We're as dry as dry can be," said Totton, a resident of Springfield, just west of Norton. 

Knowing how dry everything still was, Totton couldn't believe there were no restrictions on fires or fireworks. She worried that people would see the lack of a ban as an invitation to burn, despite the conditions.

"And we'd all be up in smoke. It just shocked me."

So Totton wrote to the Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development to express her shock. 

"How can that be? We never got a drop of rain all day or month for that matter!!!" she wrote. 

The next day, she received a letter from an official with the province. 

A view from a JDI Ltd. spotter plane flying over Cains River fires in York County in May. (J.D. Irving Ltd./Submitted)

"Although rain does help to reduce the risk of fire, it is not the only factor that affects how a fire will burn," wrote Roger Collet, a wildfire prevention officer. "Relative humidity, wind conditions and temperatures all have an effect."

In just a couple of days, he said, the fire risk went from "extreme" to "moderate." 

Collet assured Totton "that we are not just guessing at the fire weather conditions, we monitor 45 different weather stations across the province and use fire science to determine the burning conditions."

But Mike Sherwood finds it hard to believe that a few days of humid weather and little-to-no rain would have dropped the fire danger enough to move the entire province from red to green. 

Captain Mike Sherwood of the Belleisle Valley Fire Department was shocked the province moved from red to green with little-to-no precipitation in the area. (Submitted by Mike Sherwood)

In fact, the captain of the Belleisle Valley Fire Department was so worried about the dry conditions and the wide-open message from the province, that he sent a Facebook message to a Belleisle community group. 

"Knowing Canada Day was coming up, I had checked the fire index because I was going to put a post on about recommending or telling people that fireworks weren't allowed," said Sherwood.

"And when I checked  … I noticed the province had gone completely green and I was very surprised by that."

So surprised he thought there must have been a mistake, so he reloaded the page. 

"I know here, where I live and work, we have not received a drop of rain."

There certainly wasn't a drop of rain in Springfield in the 24 hours that took the province from green to red, he said. 

A water bomber drops water on a forest fire in in St. John's in 2019. New Brunswick has borrowed a CL-145 water bomber from Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted DIllon/CBC)

In fact, there was very little rain that day anywhere in the province — especially in the south, said Environment Canada meteorologist Jill Maepea. 

Fredericton received only trace amounts and Moncton recorded .7 mm, she said. The most rain recorded in New Brunswick on June 28 was 19 mm on the Acadian Peninsula. 

Sherwood said "it boggles" his mind that New Brunswick could go from completely red to green without rainfall in so much of the province. 

The ban wasn't just on burning or fireworks, he said. All activity in the woods — whether for work or play had been halted. 

The forests were so dry that on June 19, the province closed all Crown land to industrial operations and recreational activities, with the exception of provincial parks.

"Our forests are tinder dry and right now even the smallest spark could ignite a major wildfire that could threaten people's homes and destroy wildlife habitat," said Natural Resources and Energy Development Minister Mike Holland. 

Sherwood wondered how some humid air could have solved those tinder-dry conditions everywhere. 

"I know relative humidity has a lot to do with the fire risk, but that alone wouldn't take you from red, completely closed, to green, wide open."

He said he wouldn't have been surprised if parts of the province had moved into the yellow phase — where burning is permitted overnight. But that didn't happen between red and green.

The burn ban, which included fireworks, was lifted just in time for Canada Day. (CBC)

"So it really surprises me that we didn't go through a transition stage of at least nighttime burning" — at least in some counties that received rain, said Sherwood.

Although the province gave the green light to burning as of June 29, Sherwood asked his community to refrain from having bonfires and fireworks to celebrate Canada Day. 

As a firefighter, Sherwood is well aware of how quickly things can get out of control in tinder-dry conditions when using fireworks, for example. 

"Just because you're shooting them over water doesn't always mean it's going to be safe. I mean, you could have something fall over, you could have something misfire. You can have your dog grab it and start running through the woods.

"And in the blink of an eye, it's gone from a little accident to a fully involved fire which has the capability right now of consuming our whole area just as it did in Fort McMurray, Alberta."

Now yellow

On Thursday afternoon, the Department of Natural Resources moved the entire province into yellow, which means that burning is only permitted between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. 

"Precipitation is not the only factor in determining the forest fire index," Kelly Cormier, the acting director of communications for the department, said in an email on Thursday afternoon. 

Air temperature, dew point, relative humidity, and wind are also considered. 

"A few days before burning was opened again, the relative humidity increased," said Cormier.

"This has a big effect on how available fuels are able to burn. Once the relative humidity stays above 50 per cent it starts to have an impact on the surface fuels like trees and the first couple centimetres of the layer of leaves, twigs, etc. on the ground."

Although burning is now allowed at night, Cormier said it's important to be cautious. 

"Conditions can change, and the public is reminded to be careful and know the rules," she said.

Bad start to 2020 fire season

So far, 2020 has been a bad year for New Brunswick forests. Already, the province has lost nearly six times the 10-year average, according to the Natural Resources website:

  • To date, New Brunswick has reported 300 fires. The 10-year average is 166 fires a year. 

  • So far, more than 1,167 hectares have burned this year. The annual average is 203 hectares. 

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