Nova Scotia

Easing of pandemic restrictions stokes fears of grass fires in CBRM

Firefighters across Cape Breton Regional Municipality went from battling as many as 2,000 grass fires a year before the pandemic to just 200 in both 2020 and 2021.

The number of grass fires in the municipality plummeted in 2020 and 2021

Deputy fire chief Chris March says responding to grass fires takes a significant toll on firefighters. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Firefighters across Cape Breton Regional Municipality went from battling as many as 2,000 grass fires a year before the pandemic to just 200 in both 2020 and 2021.

A senior fire official in CBRM says it's believed pandemic restrictions had a lot to do with that drastic reduction and some firefighters are worried the number will jump back up this year as restrictions are lifted.

"There's going to be a lot more people out and about and the children will be in schools," said CBRM deputy fire chief Chris March. "And typically that accounts for a lot of our calls."

In fact, CBRM firefighters have adjusted how they respond to grass fires in order to not encourage young firebugs.

"When we respond to a grass fire, the lights and sirens kind of excite the kids and sometimes they want to see more of it," said March. "So what we've found to be successful over the years is that we've responded, when we can, without lights and sirens because we don't really want to amp up the situation."

Bored kids aren't the only ones to blame. In addition to accidental fires set by smokers and ATV riders, burning off old grass and brush is a rite of spring for many Cape Breton property owners. 

March said there's no need for it.

"The high-heat temperatures in the soil actually destroy the nutrients and it's not good for your grass," he said. "And as far as trying to clear your property, burning can get out of control so quickly. The wind comes up, and if we have a particularly dry season, it can be very dangerous."

The most stark reminder of that in the recent past was when a 64-year-old Glace Bay man died in April 2008 after getting caught in a grass fire. James Beaton died in hospital after suffering critical burns and smoke inhalation.

A grass fire burns in Sydney Mines in April 2016. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

March said grass fires are tough on the region's firefighters, most of whom are volunteers and have day jobs.

"Our responses have been so frequent that the response, as opposed to the actual fire, has caused fatigue issues and some minor injuries to our firefighters," he said of the years before the pandemic.

Unnecessary grass fires also take firefighters away from other emergencies.

"When you're responding to three, four, five … multiple grass fires on a hot day every day for days in a row during grass fire season, it becomes a challenge if they have to then respond to a motor vehicle accident or a structure fire in the middle of that or that night or that morning," said March.

He said that while most people are looking forward to warm, dry spring days, firefighters like to see wet weather at least until nature "greens up" and the grass fire threat is low.

Ryan Snoddon smiles for a portrait
CBC meteorologist Ryan Snoddon says the weather in Cape Breton should remain relatively wet until at least the end of March. (CBC)

CBC meteorologist Ryan Snoddon said Cape Breton has received plenty of precipitation in recent months.

"In terms of precipitation, it was actually above normal for most of the island this past winter," he said. "So that's some good news and certainly a change from the last couple of winters where precipitation was actually trending a little bit below normal."

He added that Cape Breton can look forward to more moisture in the next little while.

"It does look like things are going to stay quite active here with either snow or rain in the mix right through the end of the month," said Snoddon. "The long-range guidance shows things drying out a little bit as we turn the corner into April but beyond seven to 10 days is pretty tough to nail down, especially precipitation-wise, so take that with a grain of salt."

March said the short-range forecast is welcome at least, adding on Tuesday that local firefighters had already responded to about six grass fires this year.

"Believe it or not, we've only had a few days where there's absolutely no snow on the ground here and they were the days that we had fires," he said.