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Forest fire season in northeastern Ontario has a busy start

It's just one month into the forest fire season and the fire hazard is high across northeastern Ontario. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has reported 45 fires have burned 85 hectares of land across our region, so far this season.

If we want to keep forest fires to a minimum, what kind of weather do we need?

A fire ranger surveys damage after a forest fire. Currently 82 rangers are helping fight fires in Alberta — but Ontario never leaves itself without resources for its current conditions, a fire researcher says. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
It's forest fire season. What can we expect across Northeast? We spoke with a fire research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, with Natural Resources Canada. Bill de Groot told us about the current forest fire situation in the Northeast. 6:08

We're just one month into the forest fire season and the fire hazard is high across northeastern Ontario.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has reported 45 fires have burned 85 hectares of land across our region so far.

The region covers from Haliburton in the south, to Cochrane in the north.

Many forest fires are tied closely to weather said Shane McCool, an MNRF fire information officer for northeastern Ontario.

He said forest fires can start either by lightning strikes or by human activity, like a tossed cigarette butt.

If investigators determine a fire started by human activity, then the person responsible could be forced to pay the suppression costs.

That could be a hefty price tag if the MNRF requires the use of a water bomber.

Fire crews with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry have already supressed 45 forest fires across our region. There is currently a high fire hazard for most of northeastern Ontario. (Yvon Theriault/CBC)

Weather plays a big role

Using weather patterns, the MNRF is only able to predict the fire situation about five days in advance, said McCool.

"When we see periods with small amounts of rainfall or no amounts of rainfall, we tend to see dryer conditions," said McCool.

Those are the conditions currently across the northeastern Ontario, and that is why there is a high fire hazard in the region. Rain would be helpful to lower that hazard, McCool said.

Periodic rain — precipitation every three-to-four days — would be ideal to keep forest fires to a minimum, said Bill de Groot, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, a department with Natural Resources Canada.

He works out of the Great Lakes Forestry centre in Sault Ste. Marie, where he studies fire behaviour and how weather and vegetation impact forest fires.

DeGroot blames the region's dry conditions on below-normal snowfall over the past winter.

But there is some good news in the forecast. By the end of the summer — as the warming phase known as el Nino weakens — de Groot said there will be a return to an average fire season.

A forest fire near Timmins from 2012. Ontario's forest fire season usually runs from April 1 to Oct. 31.

Vegetation acts as fuel for forest fires 

When it comes to forest vegetation — like trees, twigs, needles, and moss — de Groot said those all act as fuel for forest fires.

For example, "conifer species, like spruce, pine and fir, that have needles; they are highly flammable fuels [that result in] typically high flames [with a forest fire]."

He said the broad leaf species have more moisture, so when a fire starts around those it results in a surface fire.

McCool reminds residents that spring is grass fire season, so they should avoid burning brush.

Instead of burning, he suggests composting or taking brush and refuse to the landfill, since grass fires could get out of hand very quickly, especially if its windy.

Forest fire research

A total of 82 Ontario fire rangers from northeastern Ontario are helping fight fires in Alberta, but McCool said the MNRF never leaves Ontario without resources for its current fire conditions.

De Groot, who has been researching the recent fires in Alberta, said he is unable to say how the Fort McMurray wildfires started, although there was lightning early on in the season.

The forest fire season in Ontario runs from April 1 to Oct. 31.