Thunder Bay·Photos

Woodland Caribou fire still burning, 20 per cent of provincial park consumed

A wildfire in a provincial park west of Red Lake, Ont. that started in May has still not officially been declared out by forest fire officials in northwestern Ontario.

Officials say biggest wildfire in recent history exhibiting 'extreme behaviour'

A wildfire burned over 74,000 hectares of boreal forest in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park (AFFES / MNRF)

A wildfire in a provincial park west of Red Lake, Ont. that started in May has still not officially been declared out by forest fire officials in northwestern Ontario.

The blaze, known as Red Lake 003, is a suspected lightning-caused fire that started in Manitoba and crossed the provincial border into Woodland Caribou Park.

It's since burned over 74,000 hectares in Woodland Caribou, or about 20 per cent of the park.
Lori Skitt is the acting superintendent at Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. (AFFES / MNRF)

Acting park superintendent Lori Skitt said the fire is "by far largest forest fire that we've had in Woodland Caribou in recent history."

"Speaking with some of the water bomber pilots, who have over 20 years experience, this was some of the most extreme fire behaviour that they had seen," she said.

Here are five things to know about the blaze.

1. Park visitors are being warned about potential dangers

Woodland Caribou Park is classified as a wilderness park, meaning there's little in the way of built-up infrastructure. Still, Skitt said, there are trails, portages and cleared spaces for tenting throughout.

The park is also a popular canoeing destination.

With large areas now burnt, Skitt said park staff are warning people about potential dangers, such as falling trees.
Large areas of the park are burnt due to the wildfire. Acting park superintendent Lori Skitt says visitors are being advised to watch for falling trees. (AFFES / MNRF)

"So that's what we're going to have to keep an eye on on the portage trails, because we want to ensure paddlers have access to the various lakes via these portages," she said, adding that they'll be monitoring the trees for the next few years, and clearing debris where appropriate.  Long-term work planning is also slated to be done.

2. Park officials are still assessing the damage

Work is also underway to get a better sense of what the fire did to the area.

Skitt said that park staff are on the ground in burnt areas to gather information on what the landscape looks like. She added that aerial mapping is also slated to be done this year.

A notice on the park's website shows that detailed mapping of areas that haven't been burnt still needs to be completed.

Skitt said visitors to the park can also help.

"Anybody that's out there paddling or using the park, we would welcome feedback from the public regarding the status of portage trails and campsites," she said, adding that the information will help with work planning.

3. It's not all bad news

Despite the destruction, Skitt said large fires like this play a very important role in the boreal ecosystem.

Periodic fires ensure new growth of a number of different types of plants and trees, she said. "What this does is it produces kind of a mosaic of different plant communities of different ages and species."
Vegetation has already started to grow after a wildfire tore through a large section of Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. (AFFES / MNRF)

"That's good for all kinds of tree species, plant species and also the critters that live out there."

Forests have to regenerate, as once they get too old, they can no longer support animal habitat, such as for the woodland caribou, she said, adding that fires also control disease outbreaks, and insect populations.

4. Prairie-like weather patterns common

It's no secret that hot, dry weather makes conditions ripe for forest fires, but Skitt said that the park, while located in the boreal forest, experiences weather more commonly found on the Prairies.

Those weather patterns are most influential in the summer months, she said, meaning an abundance of dry fuel.

During the fire, the park experienced strong south winds that quickly spread the flames.

5. A four-year old snowstorm played a big role

Skitt said that winter weather also had an impact.

A snowstorm that blew through the area in the fall of 2012 caused permanent damage to a large number of trees, she said, that, in turn, made it much easier for the fire to spread.

The heavy snow either felled trees or permanently bent them, she said.
A helicopter drops water on some flames in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. (AFFES / MNRF)

"It decreases the amount of time fire takes to get from the ground up, 'cause it has all that fuel to burn on the way up," she added.

"I don't want to say the perfect storm," she said. "But there were a lot of variables at play."

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