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Forest fire risk expected to reach above average levels

Northeastern Ontario is at 'average' risk for May and 'above average' for June
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Natural Resources Canada is predicting a potentially treacherous fire season for Western Canada and possibly the Timmins area.

Northeastern Ontario is shown at “average” risk for May and “above average” for June. 

Everything from Manitoba westward is considered at “well above average” fire risk starting in June.

“It would be excellent if these forecasts prove wrong,” said Dr. Ellen Whitman, a fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada.

Ontario’s entire fire region has been under a restricted fire zone since April 3 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are currently no active fires in the Northeast Region.

Ontario had 25 fires in 2019. The province’s annual average during the past 10 years is 82, so last year was relatively quiet.

Natural Resources Canada is assisted by the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System which is a tool designed and used by the Canadian Forest Service to monitor fire danger conditions and fire occurrences across Canada.

It is based on projected weather going forward, compared to the relative fire weather from previous years.

“So essentially what we’re looking at is a departure, a difference, or an anomaly in how we expect this summer’s fire weather to compare to what’s occurred in the past,” Whitman said.

Overall, the month of May is looking average across Canada, however, moving into June, Whitman notes there are “above average and well-above average” fire risks, but those are mainly concentrated in the western half of the country.

She added it’s difficult to specifically predict the fire forecast for a municipality, such as Timmins, but noted as it stands, info suggests it could be a higher than normal fire risk in the region this summer, due to warmer and drier conditions.

“It’s also important to note you might have a really high fire danger, so it might be a really hot, dry summer, but if you don’t have any ignitions, you won’t necessarily have any fire activity,” Whitman said.

“So if there’s not as much lightning as normal, or if parks are closed, or people are really careful this year about travelling, due to the pandemic, you could actually see pretty average, or even below average fire activity in Northeastern Ontario, or Ontario in general.”

Monthly projections are available up to August and September, but the emphasis is placed on May and June at this point, due to the volatility and lower accuracy of long-range weather forecasts.

“So our confidence in the forecast decreases as we go forward towards July, August, and September,” Whitman said.

However, the forecasts are updated on the first of every month using the newest data available.

Whitman noted generally speaking, Eastern Canada receives more annual precipitation than the West, which impacts the fire danger in those regions.

“There's a lot of different regional climate and weather variables that affect those forecasts,” she said.

“A reduction in the minimal amount of rain the West generally gets could contribute to quite dry conditions.”

Regardless of the natural conditions, the biggest factor in determining the severity of the forest fire season is always human behaviour.

“The key thing to take away from this is, there may be elevated fire risk or fire danger due to warm and dry conditions, but human ignitions play a really important role in whether or not this plays out in an increase in fire activity,” Whitman said.

Most forests in Canada, including this region’s Boreal Forest, are naturally adapted to wildfire and will recover eventually, but prevention should always be the focus.

“It’s a natural part of the system, but it is a burden for agencies to manage human-caused fires and generally speaking, they tend to be close to communities, which puts people’s homes and lives at risk,” Whitman said.

- Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initative, Timmins Daily Press

Andrew Autio

About the Author: Andrew Autio

Andrew Autio covers civic matters under the Local Journalism Initiative out of the Timmins Daily Press, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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