Thunder Bay

Ontario wildfire officials say they expect 'increased demand' as infrastructure spreads north

Wildfire officials in northern Ontario say they expect an "increased demand" for their services as forest fires are projected to become more frequent and intense, and as more infrastructure gets built through more remote parts of the province.

Advances in planning, technology, along with frequent communication, key to protecting values in far north

Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry says Ontario wildfire crews use 'aerial ignition' on the Caddy Lake fire on Tuesday to 'fight fire with fire.' (Ontario Northwest Region Forest Fire Management Centre)

Wildfire officials in northern Ontario say they expect an "increased demand" for their services as forest fires are projected to become more frequent and intense, and as more infrastructure gets built through remote parts of the province.

But Darren McLarty, a fire response coordinator with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, says advances in information and imaging technology, along with appropriate planning and communication, will be key to protecting communities, outbuildings, power and telecommunications lines as well as other values in remote areas during forest fire season.

"We're currently expanding the power grid with the Watay Power project as an example ... that project itself is probably going to add around 1,600 kilometres of new power line corridor across northwestern Ontario," he said. "All that area would be susceptible to damage in the event of a passing fire."

"Part of it comes down to the planning stage when we look at these projects," McLarty continued. 

"We're alway providing recommendations on proper width of the corridor so they're not immediately adjacent or at risk from the adjacent fuels and, naturally, the use of poles that are less likely to burn."

The power line connects Pikangikum First Nation to the provincial power grid and is part of a multi-stage project to provide a stable source of electricity to over a dozen Indigenous communities. The line sustained minor damage during a large forest fire that caused the first evacuation of Pikangikum in 2019; the fire also burned telecommunication lines, knocking out phone and internet to a number of First Nations.

Another fire knocked out local phone service to Pickle Lake, and destroyed CBC transmitter equipment.

Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, said he expects Canadian summers will see more and more fires due to climate change, adding that about 2.5 million hectares burn in a given summer — or about half the size of Nova Scotia. That is more than double what would go up in flames each year in the early 1970s, he said.

"We're seeing a lot more fire on the landscape than we used to," said Flannigan. "A lot of real estate burns every year."

A wildfire near Pickle Lake, Ont., in June 2019 knocked out local telephone service, including 911 capabilities. (Bernie Hawryluk)

McLarty said fire response and suppression plans by the ministry identify values — everything from communities, buildings and power lines to essential stands of timber, sensitive habitat areas or culturally-important sites — and prioritize them for protection in the event of stretched resources, much like the triage process at a hospital.

Part of that, he said, is deploying sprinkler kits ahead of a fire when possible, which soak the area and raise the humidity level, making it much harder to burn. He added that the ministry works with communities and other stakeholders to accurately identify where values are on the landscape so they can be protected if need be.

Aside from infrastructure development in the far north, McLarty said there's also more  construction of cottages and other rural recreation structures that also need protection. He said the ministry communicates with landowners about making their properties as "fire-smart" as possible by mitigating hazards, such as clearing surrounding vegetation.

"It's certainly on our radar screen as far as how's our organization going to be able to react to a more increased demand for our services," he said. "But we're also working with the stakeholders as well to make sure that they're mitigating their own risk."

Conversations within the ministry "are ongoing" as to how it will deal with future conditions, he said.

"We're certainly focused on providing that increased level of protection."

And while the basics of forest firefighting haven't changed much, McLarty said advances in technology, such as those in information and data collection and scanning and imaging and how that data is used, are very helpful in making decisions.

"I think what has changed is our ability to understand what's ... going on out in the field and react better to [that information]," he said. "[It's] gone a long way to putting us in a better position to be able to react to challenges of the future."