By Michael Lynch
Those making predictions in March about the severity of the upcoming forest fire season in Northern Ontario are doing little more than guessing, Ontario forest fire management officials say. A lack of snow during the winter months does not necessarily translate into a greater risk of forest fires in the spring, says Bob Johnson, fire management supervisor, for the Ministry of Natural Resources Thunder Bay district.
"Ironically, some heavy-snowfall winters have turned into higher-than-average fire seasons (for suppression activity)," says Johnson.
The latest example was in 1995 when the north shore of Lake Superior received higher than average snowfalls during the winter months, he says.
"There was still snow on the ground in May, and then we had a rapid meltdown followed by a flood alert for many areas," Johnson says. A week after the flooding occurred, fire-fighting crews were "actively involved in suppressing wildfires."
Debbie MacLean, an MNR fire information officer, says there are many variables that cause forest fires. To get a read on the potential for fires, the MNR assess the different vegetation in the forest for moisture content. Low moisture content increases the risk for forest fires in the spring.
MacLean says there is a "shoulder period" from when the snow is gone, until new growth appears, which determines the hazard for forest fires. If it rains and the forest "greens up" the hazard is less. If does not rain and the weather is warm, the fire hazard increases, she says.
She says the MNR monitors snowfall amounts over the winter, and then in the spring has weather stations all across the north monitoring conditions. The results from the weather stations are gathered twice a day to determine moisture, temperature, wind speed and direction and the relative humidity.
"Our emergency response is based on determining the hot spots and focusing our resources on them," MacLean says. "Where it is hot, dry and windy is where we focus our resources."
MacLean says the province has experienced a mixture of results with forest fires over the past decade.
"Even in Ontario we have had extreme differences," MacLean says.
The west fire region, encompassing an area from Marathon west to the Manitoba border, had below-normal fire numbers in 2001, MacLean says, compared to the east fire region that runs from Marathon to southern Ontario which had an extreme fire season.
Lorne Monroe, MNR forest-fire information officer for the east region, says drought, heat and dry lightning shot the numbers up dramatically for the month of August in 2001.
"We had 600 fires in a four-or five-week period," Monroe says.
The east region normally has approximately 900 fires per year, Monroe says, but had 1,007 last year. A majority of the fires were concentrated in the four- to five-week period. Monroe says the east region was fighting forest fires as far south as Darlington, where "water-bomber pilots had Toronto's CN tower in view."
Both fire information officers say that weather and moisture are not the only factors that lead to forest fires. People's recreation activities and their work cause many forest fires in the region