Sudbury

Alberta crews join northeastern Ontario forest fire effort

Some 84 firefighters have arrived in Sudbury to help fight fires in the northeast. Some will soon head to northwestern Ontario where more fires are burning.

Cool, wet weather helping efforts but risk remains, says MNRF

Fire crews from Alberta receive a briefing on the conditions in Northeastern Ontario on June 21, 2021. (Tom Cox, MNRF/Supplied)

A group of 84 forest firefighters and fire management crews has arrived from Alberta to help fight forest fires in northeastern Ontario.

Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) says there are currently 176 forest firefighters from British Columbia and Alberta working in the province.

Each firefighter took a COVID-19 test upon arrival on June 21 and received a briefing before getting their assignments.

"We did have some pretty active fire activity recently on some of our larger fires in the northeast region over the weekend," says Isabelle Chenard, MNRF fire information officer for northeastern Ontario.

As of June 23, there are seven active forest fires in northeastern Ontario and 27 in northwestern Ontario.

The fires of note include:

  • Kirkland Lake 6; being held at 100 hectares, located five kilometres north of Highway 66 near Matachewan First Nation.
  • Cochrane 15; being held at 140 hectares, located 50 kilometres east of the town of Cochrane, Ont.

The largest fire in the northeast is Cochrane 13, about 120 kilometres northeast of the town of Cochrane, Ont. Crews are holding it at 301 hectares.

Fire conditions differ across northern Ontario

The hot and dry spring has been a challenge for forest fire crews, Chenard says, but the cooler weather and rain in the forecast for northeastern Ontario has helped the efforts.

"When we have sustained precipitation over several days, [it does] assist with reducing the fire intensity, which has been the case on our side of the province," Chenard says.

Aerial photos of Cochrane 13 from before and after this week's rains show a significant size reduction in just four days.

But those weather systems often bring storms that can spark fires through lightning strikes.

"Sometimes fires can burn inside of a tree or underneath the forest floor for several days. And when conditions warm up and the winds pick up, we find some of these holdover lightning fires, so we're continuing to keep an eye out for that," Chenard says.

Northwestern Ontario's largest active fire is Sioux Lookout 17 at 630 hectares. It is located about 85 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, Ont. and is not under control.

Some of the visiting fire crews will be moving to the northwest this week, Chenard says.

Fire activity higher than average this year

So far in 2021, MNRF has reported 398 fires across Ontario as of June 24, nearly two-and-a-half times higher than 2020. The year-to-date average over 10 years is 242.

The hot, dry conditions partly explain why this year's numbers are higher, but MNRF has also increased its fire surveillance flights since the start of 2020.

This means crews can detect fires sooner and, if they may threaten populations or key infrastructure, they can control and extinguish them while they're still small.

The amount of land burned this year reflects this, says Chenard. Some 28,826 hectares have burned so far in 2021, only about half of the 10-year average of 55,575 hectares.

MNRF often lets remote fires burn as a natural part of the forest ecosystem, but it regularly monitors them so its crews can act if needed.

No pandemic fire ban for 2021

Another factor reducing the number of fires last year was a provincial restricted fire zone due to COVID-19, which lasted from April 3 to May 16, 2020.

Chenard says this was to reduce the risk of human-caused fires, but public health protocols are now well-established and the need for such restrictions has faded.

However, if weather conditions make burning unsafe, Ontario could introduce restricted fire zones later this summer.

Ontario's fire season runs between April 1 and October 31 each year. During this time, there are provincial restrictions on outdoor burning and municipalities often enact local fire bans.

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