Thunder Bay

Infrastructure in Ontario's far north more at risk due to more frequent, intense wildfires, experts say

Wildfire experts say vital infrastructure that criss-crosses Ontario's far north, like power lines and telecommunications corridors, will be more at risk to damage or destruction in forest fires as blazes will become more frequent and intense.

Over 109 million hectares of space across Canada where wildlands come into contact with roads, power lines

Forest fires will put infrastructure like roads, power lines and telecommunications corridors at greater risk over the next century, wildfire experts say. (Bernie Hawryluk)

Wildfire experts say there's a greater risk that vital infrastructure that criss-crosses Ontario's far north, like power lines and telecommunications corridors, will be damaged or destroyed by forest fires as blazes will become more frequent and intense.

There's over 109 million hectares of space across Canada where forested or grassland areas come into contact with things like roads, bridges, power lines, railroads and telecommunications lines for phone and internet, said Lynn Johnston, a fire research specialist with the Canadian Forest Service in Sault Ste. Marie.

That convergence of infrastructure and wildland fuel is expected to see more fire activity over the next century due to climate change, she said.

"In the future, we're going to be seeing those infrastructure areas under a more frequent fire return interval, so they're going to be seeing more fire," she said.

"It's quite an increase ... about 30 per cent more frequent fire."

A nearly-4,000 hectare forest fire that caused the evacuation of Pikangikum First Nation, about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, also burned a number of telecommunications lines, according to the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a territorial organization that represents 49 First Nations in Ontario's far north, including Pikangikum.

That knocked out phone and internet to a number of First Nations, including the local phone system in Pikangikum, NAN said. The blaze also caused minor damage to a new power line that connects Pikangikum to the provincial energy grid.

Another fire near Pickle Lake in June also burned telephone infrastructure, knocking out the local phone system, including 911 service, according to the township's clerk-treasurer.

"Remote communities, particularly First Nations communities, ... they're typically more at risk to forest fire," Johnston said.

"The impacts can be even more drastic because the infrastructure is maybe not there for an evacuation, maybe there's one road in or no roads ... so the impacts can be much more pronounced in these more remote areas."

While the boreal forest needs fire to survive and rejuvinate, Johnston said too much of it can, not only change the type of vegetation that grows back, but also make it far more difficult to protect important infrastructure, especially if more of it gets built into remote areas, such as roads, power lines and industry connected to the Ring of Fire.

"That infrastructure interface area is huge," Johnston said.

A nearly 4,000 hectare fire near Pikangikum First Nation burned telecommunications lines that supply phone and internet to several remote First Nations and knocked out phone service in Pikangikum. (Trav G Peters/Facebook)

Given that the boreal forest is made up of coniferous trees, which are especially flammable, the increased prevalence of hot, dry, windy days, which are the perfect storm for intense fires, means infrastructure is more and more at risk, said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.

"Fire doesn't spread very much on average days, it's on those extreme hot, dry, windy days," Flannigan said.

That, he said, has some especially fire-prone jurisdictions looking at new ways to reduce fires or protect things, like power lines.

"I was just in San Diego County, which is probably one of the leaders in dealing with power lines, they bury 60 per cent of their cables," he said, adding that's "the safest thing to do but it's really expensive."

A report by Environment and Climate Change Canada found as the country heats up, warming will intensify the severity of heat waves and contribute to higher risks of wildfires and drought. (CBC)

Other ideas in rural California include shutting down the power grid in the area when there's a span of hot and dry weather Flannigan said, which all but eliminates the chance that the lines themselves will spark a fire.

"They have other technologies that they detect if there's any break in the line and they turn the power off automatically, even before the power line hits the ground," he said.

"That's where we have to move towards, is adopting some of those concepts where practical."

The type of infrastructure that's usually most at risk is also very expensive to replace, he said.

No idea is failsafe, though, Flannigan said, citing a 2014 wildfire that melted a buried span of telecommunications cable that cut off internet to Yellowknife for "quite awhile until they repaired the cable."

"That's just one example," he said. "But as fires get bigger and more intense, they are going to affect infrastructure in many ways."

That's why, he said, protecting things like power and telecommunication lines needs to be front and centre in all emergency planning and those plans should be updated to account for climate change-caused more extreme weather.

"We have to be prepared for a world full of more extremes," he said. "Whether that's drought, fire, wind and flooding."

With files from Cathy Alex