Nova Scotia

Forest fires started by 'machine tracks' prompt calls for temporary ban on logging

Two fires that burned more than a hundred hectares of forest in King County, N.S., last month were started by machinery in the woods, Nova Scotia Environment said.

Nova Scotia government says it's monitoring conditions, but won't commit to halting forestry activity

Stacks of charred logs could be seen at the site of the fire in late May near Springfield, N.S. (Donna Crossland)

Some Nova Scotians are calling for a ban on logging during hot, dry weather after it was revealed that machinery in the woods caused two forest fires that spanned more than a hundred hectares in Kings County last month.

Nova Scotia's Department of Environment determined a 13-hectare fire in McGee Lake and a 120-hectare fire near Springfield were started in late May by "metal machine tracks creating sparks on rocky terrain."

The department didn't respond to questions about what machine made those tracks and what kind of work was being done, however logging machines such as feller bunchers and forwarders could create those kind of tracks.

Photos taken in both areas after the fires also show logging activity — there were piles of logs on the side of roads and charred stacks of logs.

"To be going into that kind of place and working, it just seems really risky," said Bev Wigney, who runs the Facebook group Annapolis Royal and Area Environment and Ecology.

"The ground is all dried out. It's really easy to go up in flames. Like you pick up a handful of moss or ferns and they're just like crumbling with dryness, and it takes nothing to set that kind of debris on fire."

She wants Nova Scotia to follow the lead of New Brunswick, which last week closed all Crown land, except provincial parks, to recreational and industrial activity, including forestry. 

Nova Scotia's Department of Lands and Forestry said it's working closely with the forestry industry to monitor conditions, but wouldn't say if a ban on forestry would be enforced. 

The 13-hectare fire near McGee Lake and the 120-hectare fire in Springfield were caused 'by metal machine tracks creating sparks on rocky terrain,' according to Nova Scotia Environment. (Brian Taylor)

Nova Scotia has been under a provincewide fire ban for more than a week. That means campfires and backyard fires aren't allowed, but forestry activity continues.

In addition to the Kings County fires, there were at least three other fires burning in remote areas of the province in late May, but Nova Scotia Environment couldn't determine their causes. 

The 120-hectare fire near Alton Road in Springfield was considered out of control due to high winds, and required more than 50 personnel and two helicopters to put it out. 

The Department of Lands and Forestry wouldn't say whether that fire was on Crown land. But a map of the fire area near Springfield provided to the Chronicle Herald matches with a provincial map online that shows forestry on Crown land.

The fire in the Springfield area appears to be on Crown land. (Harvest Plans Map Viewer)

Jeff Bishop, the executive director of industry group Forest Nova Scotia, said people who work in the woods are always careful about the potential for fire, especially this time of year.

He said machine operators are trained to know how to respond if a spark is ignited, and that crews carry fire prevention equipment with them, like backpacks with water and shovels.

He said while it's possible for steel on a bulldozer, forwarder or other tracked machine to drive over a rock and create a spark, the potential of that starting a forest fire is relatively low.

"The risk is much higher when you have an actual lit fire already and it spreading versus forestry activities that could in the right conditions … potentially cause a fire. So you're really not comparing apples to apples," he said.

Some people think it's too risky to have forestry machinery in the woods during hot dry weather. Sparks caused by machinery in the forests caused two recent woods fires in Kings County. 7:30

Bishop said as much as operators want to work, they also understand that bans are sometimes necessary.

"We have had bans before in the province, so it's not something that would be highly unexpected, especially in a warm and dry year," he said. 

Forestry 'very minor contributor' to fires

Nova Scotia typically has about 225 forest fires every year. 

So far this year, more than 130 hectares have burned due to machinery in the woods, yet the Department of Lands and Forestry insists the industry "is a very minor contributor" to forest fires. 

The department said of the 154.5 hectares burned in 2019, 1.14 hectares burned as a result of forestry operations. While in 2018, one hectare burned due to forestry and in 2017 it was 3.66 hectares.

Two helicopters and more than 50 personnel were called to the scene near Alton Road in Springfield. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"Ninety-nine per cent of our wildfires are caused by humans, with the vast majority resulting from residential burning, recreation, and arson," spokesperson Lisa Jarrett said in an email. "We encourage the public to check our burnsafe map online to check whether it is safe to burn prior to doing so."

But Wigney is worried that Nova Scotia has already had a rash of fires, and it's not even July yet. She doesn't want the province to wait any longer.

"Our forests have great value to us, and they're full of wildlife and if they go on fire, that's all just burnt up. We lose decades of growth," she said.

With files from CBC's Information Morning

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