'We've been lucky,' researcher says as fewer forest fires reported in northeastern Ontario

Researchers in Sudbury say fewer reports of forest fires in northern parts of Ontario and a drop in the number of blue-green algae sightings may be encouraging signs to residents short term, but could also point to longer-term problems related to climate change. 

World has entered a 'new normal' amid drastic year-to-year climate variances

David Pearson, an emeritus professor with Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., says climate change means 'we need to be a little bit careful in the middle of August saying that we're out of the danger of the forest fires.' (Submitted by David Pearson)

People in northern Ontario may have to get accustomed to a change in the seasons, at least as far as severe weather events go.

Researchers in Sudbury say fewer reports of forest fires in the region and a drop in the number of blue-green algae sightings may be encouraging signs to residents short term, but could also point to longer-term problems related to climate change.

One of those problems could include dealing with a longer forest fire season, David Pearson, emeritus professor with Laurentian University, told CBC News.

"When fire crews were recruited 10, 15 years ago, they were often peopled by university students," Pearson said. "Now, when the university students go back to school, the fire season is still continuing into September, which it didn't in the past.

"So we need to be a little bit careful in the middle of August saying that we're out of the danger of the forest fires."

Fortunately, northeastern Ontario has seen only a fraction of the number of fires it typically grapples with.

A statement from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to CBC News said it's been a "relatively quiet" fire season so far.

"April saw a large amount of precipitation in the form of both rain and snow, and as a result despite the official start to the fire season being April 1 (ends Oct. 31), we did not record a single wildland fire in the province until April 28," the statement reads. "After a short fire flap in early to mid-May in the northeast region, the number of fires has been very low in comparison to previous years."

A fire know as Red Lake 65 forced the evacuation of several communities in 2021. (@ONForestFires on Twitter)

Pearson also said the potential for late summer storms — including significant flooding what washed over southwestern Ontario in 2016 — pushes deeper into the calendar year. 

But so far, fewer reported forest fires, as well as a slightly wetter summer and cooler temperatures, have meant northerners haven't had to deal with mass evacuations, like the one that brought 500 members of Pikangikum First Nation to Sudbury in 2021.

The City of Greater Sudbury has also issued only one fire ban this summer, back in May. 

This summer has been "very, very different," Pearson said

"What is perhaps encouraging about that is that, although we don't often realize it, somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four out of every 10 fires are lit by human error, by somebody having thought that that campfire was out and gone to bed or left the campsite. 

"It could be that part of the reason is that people are being more careful with where they throw their cigarette butts and setting fire to cardboard boxes, and being more careful with their campfires," Pearson said.

"So that's perhaps encouraging. But certainly there's a weather aspect as well, I think. And part of what we should be saying to ourselves is we've been lucky." 

A bloomless day at the beach, so far

Beach-goers may have also noticed that lakes in Sudbury have been open most of the summer, so far.

Sudbury's health unit has only spotted one bloom in July. That's a big change from previous years, when the city's main beach at Ramsey Lake for several weeks had warning signs posted to keep people and pets away from blue-green algal blooms.

Under the right conditions, the blooms, also known as cyanobacteria, create a floating, slick scum that looks unappealing and can be harmful if swallowed.

Researcher Charles Ramcharan, former director of Laurentian Unviersity's School of the Environment, said cooler temperatures this summer were a "throwback" to a time before the climate noticeably began changing.

"One of the requirements for algae growth is to have warm water," Ramcharan said. "I suspect that we'll find the water is cooler this year and just enough to slow down the growth of the blue-green algae."

A similar phenomenon has been reported in Lake Erie as well, Ramcharan said. 

We need to get used to this.- Charles Ramcharan, former director of Laurentian University's School of the Environment

The National Centres for Coastal Ocean Science predict the toxic blooms will only be moderately severe for Lake Erie, well below peaks in 2011 and 2015.

"The other thing that matters is wind speed," Ramcharan said. "We've had a summer where we haven't had a lot of calm conditions.

"For cyanobacteria to create a scum, you need to have calm conditions so that the algae can form a scum, and the surface is not broken up.

"The scum, of course, is what sort of alerts people and gets the health unit involved."

Blue-green algae signs like this one have been less common in Greater Sudbury this summer. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

But the algae are still there, Ramcharan said, despite the blooms not being present. Even so, without the blooms, people should not hesitate to go for a dip.

"People should get out there and take advantage of it," he said. "You can swim without having to worry about it. And I don't see any flags on the beaches and things like that, so it's a good summer for swimming."

But not every lake has been spared.

Simon Lake, about 20 kilometres west of Sudbury, has endured an annual visitation of green scum, slightly different than the blue-green variety, which residents hope to one day remove with the help of a scum-skimmer. 

"It's very fibrous, it's very thick. It's very dense, mostly because of the water," Krishnan Venkatraman, a resident of the lake, told CBC News in July. "If you tried to pick up the scoop, if you tried to scoop it up in your hand or in the shovel, the algae is about six to 12 inches [152 to 304 mm] thick from the surface. So it feels very, very heavy."

But Ramcharan said the presence of blooms is something lake dwellers will have to get used to, as their number is only increasing across North America.

Charles Ramcharan, former director of Laurentian University's School of the environment, says there is no normal number of algae blooms. (Samantha Samson/CBC News)

"These blooms are going to be more frequent," Ramcharan said. "They're going to be longer, and they're going to come earlier in the year. They're going to stay later in the year.

"We need to adapt, do what we can to control levels of phosphorus, which is one of the major nutrients driving these blooms, as well," he said, noting these efforts are already underway by residents and local governments.

"There are all sorts of programs in place to reduce phosphorus emissions and also phosphorus entry into water systems," he said. "The agencies are working as fast as they can to address this issue. But with a changing climate, it gets tough."

Despite the doom and gloom of the annual blooms, Ramcharan said he's optimistic we can learn to deal with climate change.

"Having an unusual summer or unusual weather is no longer unusual," he said. "We need to get used to this.

"We're losing spring rapidly. We're losing fall. On any day in April in Sudbury, there could be a 50 degrees Celsius range in temperatures. We've seen temperatures in April of –30, and we see a temperature of plus 28.

"So it's quite surprising. But this is the weather we're going to have to live with, now."