Forest fires caused by lightning the 'new normal' for northern Ontario, says expert

A retired forest fire expert in Sudbury says we cannot ignore climate change as a factor in the ongoing fires in our region.

Material on forest floors part of combustible combination

A forest fire expert says blazes like this one near Kirkland Lake in 2018 will become the new norm, as drought-like conditions caused by climate change make for perfect conditions in which the fire can spread. (CBC)

A retired forest fire expert in Sudbury says we cannot ignore climate change as a factor in the ongoing fires in our region.

Tim Lynham has spent much of his career with the federal government studying forest fires.

He told CBC's Morning North that drought-like conditions in some areas combined with increased storm activity from global warming has been a recipe for lightning fires.

But it's not the trees themselves that are to blame for the increased fire activity. Lynham said the greater risk comes from what lies on the tinder-dry forest floors.

"The forest floor constitutes about 60-80 percent of what goes up in a forest fire," Lynham said.  "It's not much of the trees, it's a bit of the bark, the twigs, the needles. But really it's the organic material that sits on the forest floor that contributes most of the energy and the fire."

The material that burns on the forest floor can ignite the forest crown, which in turn can light up the floor in front of it.

"They work together to move the fire along very quickly," Lynham said.

Lynham said northeastern Ontario is part of a global trend, and people should be prepared for what may be the "new normal."

Greece, California, and British Columbia have all seen an increase in fire activity.

"What I fear is that we treat it like other accidents, like being on the highway," he said. "We're always betting that it won't be us."

"We have twice as much fire now as we did in 1970. This is going to get worse. And we need to figure out what we're going to do about it."

With files from Jessica Pope