Climate, vandals change forest-fire pattern
Season starts sooner but number of blazes declining
Written by Olivia D'Orazio
April 24, 2011, Toronto - Though it may not seem like it, the number of forest and grass fires in Canada has been on the decline, but fire watchers say the season is starting earlier and fire departments need to be ready sooner to tackle these blazes.
In 2010, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) reported a total of 7,041 fires, which affected about 3.3 million hectares of land. Last year, CIFFC reported just 4,327 fires, affecting some 2.6 million hectares.
But the forest fire season has been moving up, with fires occurring earlier in the spring than usual. Around this time last year, the CIFFC reported just 120 fires; as of April 23 this year, there have been 558 forest or grass fires in Canada.
Fire season is generally between April and October, depending where in the country you are.
"Historically, fires in Canada go from east to west," explains Serge Poulin, operations manager for the CIFFC.
"Usually, most of the busy times for the Maritime provinces is around spring, and goes into May. The season moves to Quebec, Ontario, then out west – Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C."
But, this year, grass fires have been spreading out of order, so to speak. Fire departments in western Canada have fought several major grass fires earlier than normal – Lethbridge, Alta., even recorded a major grass fire in January. Manitoba had two major fires in March alone, one in St. Ambrose and the other in Lenore, while fire crews in Maple Creek, Sask., battled a massive, multiple-day grass fire that same month.
In the Maritimes, fire crews have had their hands full, with a March forest fire in Subenacadie, N.S. In April, which is generally closer to the region’s fire season, Charlottetown firefighters issued a warning after responding to dozens of grass fires in a single weekend. In Nova Scotia, a brush fire forced the evacuation of several homes in Iverness County, while crews in Spaniard’s Bay, N.L., were forced to call in two water bombers to fight a forest fire last weekend.
The fire season time of year is usually dry and warm, and high winds and lightning are common: it's the perfect picture for forest and grass fires. And, as climates change and snowmelt begins earlier and earlier each year, Canadians can expect to see a rise not only in the number of early forest fires, but also a longer fire season.
In Nova Scotia, Fire Chief Lloyd MacIntosh of North Sydney Fire and Rescue, said his team has responded to almost 250 grass fires since the start of the year – most of them in the last month, but some as far back as January.
"Generally, grass fire season has started earlier," he says. "It's been a very dry year, there hasn't been much snow.
"One of the things we've noticed this season, which is really odd, is that when the sun goes down, the grass fires [used to] tend to stop. But we've noticed grass fires as early as one o'clock, two o'clock, or even four o'clock in the morning."
With the setting sun, temperatures drop, causing moisture to form in the air. The damp air makes it more difficult for fires to spread – and harder for them to start in the first place. But, as Chief MacIntosh points out, there just hasn't been enough moisture in the air to stop the fires.
MacIntosh also says that the staggering majority of those fires have been man-made.
“I don’t think that people are really aware of the consequences,” he says.
“Kids start [fires] for the thrill of it, then adults start them with the thought that it’s beneficial to the grass; then there are some people who just don’t care.”
Grass fires become especially dangerous when high winds force the flames toward populated areas, as was the case in Slave Lake, Alta., last year. More than 40 per cent of the town was destroyed by wildfire when winds over 90 kilometres an hour thrust the fire into the southeastern part of the town.
In his article for the July issue of Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly, Dr. Ed Brotzk, a weather expert and retired professor of atmospheric studies, explains that air always tries to move from high-pressure areas to low-pressure areas, or from cool regions to warmer ones. This movement produces wind; the greater the difference between the high- and low-pressure areas, the stronger the wind.
With the way that climates are heading now, firefighters are likely to experience earlier fire seasons and easier starts – with dry conditions, warmer weather, and higher winds to blame.
“It’s sheer luck that we don’t get caught in these grass fires when there is another major fire somewhere else,” MacIntosh says.
Poulin agrees, saying prevention is key.
“Our major role here [at CIFFC] is co-ordination,” he says. “Everything is prevention; it’s people being cautious, being prepared.”
For responding firefighters, MacIntosh said his crew found grass fire calls halved when they started responding to calls cold – that is, without lights or sirens.
“We don’t know why, but running with no lights or sirens seems to be effective,” he says.
“It cut our call lines for grass fires in half. We think it might be kids to get the thrill of seeing the lights and sirens.”