Wildfire risk heightened by Fiona debris
February 1, 2023 By Dylan DesRoche, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Feb. 1, 2023, P.E.I. – The PEI government is looking for ways to deal with debris left behind from Hurricane Fiona as they may increase wildfire risk if they aren’t managed before the summer.
Months after the September 24th storm wreaked havoc, the province is still looking to address thousands of fallen trees, debris and brush before it all creates more issues.
Concerns are growing that the mass quantities of debris could dry significantly and create a wildfire risk this summer.
Data shows there has already been an increase in fires reported in wooded areas.
Vicki Tse is a senior communications officer with the province’s EMO (Emergency Measures Organization) and the Department of Justice and Public Safety.
She provided data to The Graphic which shows from October 1, 2022 to January 13, 2023 there were 17 brush fires, six forest fires and 86 reports of the sight or smell of smoke.
During the same time frame in 2021-22, there were seven woodland fires and 34 reports of smoke.
In the data provided from the previous year, October 2021 to January 2022, there were no fires categorized as brush or forest fires.
Ms Tse said the data includes false alarms and no reports from Charlottetown or Summerside.
Despite the increase in the number of fires, the province is still unable to provide many crucial details on the clean-up effort.
April Gallant, a senior communications officer with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said the province partnered with private landowners to open 16 debris drop-off sites.
The landowners are being paid for the use of their land and costs were negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
No specifics were available on the total cost.
“Anything that can be eligible for the federal government’s disaster financial assistance will be put through that,” she said.
“We know that the cost for Fiona debris clean-up between these public pits and the sites where DTI is taking the debris they have collected will be in the millions.”
Gallant said some of the landowners approached the province as they wanted to use debris for their own purposes but she didn’t provide information as to where the province recruited the non-volunteer landowners.
The province hasn’t been measuring the amount of debris at each site or specifically what types of debris and brush is in each pile. This makes it more complicated to destroy.
“We have been looking into biomass for as much of the product as we can. However, for use as biomass the debris has to meet very specific specifications and the majority is not usable,” Gallant said.
The province doesn’t have a timeline on when this work will be finished.
Gerard McMahon, president of the PEI Firefighters Association, plans to bring up Fiona’s impact in regards to the summer fire season at the association’s February meeting.
It’s not just first responders who are worried either. Other government departments are beginning to raise alarms.
“Forests, Fish and Wildlife is indeed concerned,” Katie MacDonald, a senior communications officer with the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action, said.
She said the department is prioritizing efforts to mitigate risks by building public awareness through maps and by providing financial incentives for private property owners who salvage downed wood.
The province is also looking to increase wood salvage on public land and ensure volunteer fire departments are prepared through training and evaluations of their equipment.
However, some sources say it is important some downed wood is left on the forest floor.
Gary Schneider, supervisor of the Macphail Ecological Forestry Project, said though the debris can come with some risk, fallen trees and branches are important for the environment and act as a layer of protection against high temperatures and fire.
“I know this is a different situation because a bunch of stuff has fallen down but we usually get a lot of rain and as long as the wood is near or on the forest floor it acts as a big sponge and it’s very difficult to burn that.”
“When I’m teaching kids in the middle of the driest part of summer I’ll plunge my hand into a fallen hemlock on the ground that’s been there for 50 years and pull out a piece of wood and they are always surprised I can easily squeeze water out of it.”
That said, Schneider noted that dead trees and debris that don’t reach the ground pose a risk.
“It’s when you have a lot of branches still hanging in the air or trees leaning on one another and not falling to the ground, that’s when things can dry out really seriously and could become a hazard.”
That’s why, he said, it’s okay to take out some of the wood, especially wood that has commercial value, but it is important to acknowledge the role debris and fallen trees play in our ecosystems.
“Instead of the rainfall going into streams and then back into the ocean, these trees play a crucial role as a sponge that allows the water to percolate back into our groundwater systems.”
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