Ontario wildfire season kicks off quietly, but experts warn of a possibly tough year ahead


April marks the official start of Ontario’s wildfire season, and while fire experts are hoping for a quieter season than last, they’re already preparing for the worst.

Last year, wildfires forced the evacuation of a number of remote First Nations in Northwestern Ontario and burned more hectares of land in the province in 2021 than in any other year in history.

“It was a little intense at times,” said Chris Marchand, a fire information officer with the Ontario Aviation Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES), referring to the 2021 season. .

“What is quite different about our situation in 2022 so far is that in most places, at least around the northwest, we are starting the season with a lot more snow on the ground than we had. around this time last year,” said Marchand, who is based at the service’s Northwest Regional Center in Dryden.

A photo by Amanda Sainnawap shows the mist and glow from nearby forest fires last summer as she evacuated from Pikangikum in July. (Submitted by Amanda Sainnawap)

April was an active month for wildfires in northwestern Ontario last year, with two fires reported on the opening day of the season.

So far in 2022, much of northwestern Ontario is seeing heavy snowfall for a week in April as another system moves through the region.

The extended snow cover will help slow the start of the fire season according to Marchand, but until everything melts, it’s unclear how winter will affect the spring and summer months on the landscape.

“While the amount of snow depth plays a role in regulating the moisture content of vegetation, the amount of rain we saw last fall and the weather patterns once an area becomes snow free. snow, these are also important factors in determining how vulnerable an area is to bushfires,” Marchand explained.

While forecasts and snow cover may look promising for getting wildfires under control, conditions can still change quickly and crews are bracing for any outcome, Marchand said.

Drought forecasts improve, but spring rainfall still essential

So far, snowy winters in the northwest and parts of the prairies have been helpful in improving drought forecasts in several regions.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s latest drought outlook predicts that conditions will improve in many parts of the country this spring. The dark green area indicates “drought eliminating” and yellow indicates “drought improving”. (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

February drought monitoring report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada showed that many areas are still experiencing severe drought to abnormally dry conditions. But in March, most areas saw improvement and an end to the drought, according to the government agency.

Avoiding drought conditions early in the season may not mean parts of Ontario are safe from wildfires.

Graham Saunders, a climatology expert living in Thunder Bay, said wildfire seasons over the past few decades have shown that rain is the critical element leading into spring.

“If I go back to 1996, which was another great snow year, at that time of year we had a lot of snow on the ground, and at the end of May we had a serious fire season,” he said. he said, adding there was a lack of rain after the spring melt that year.

Early forecasts show the possibility of a cool spring with normal precipitation, but some areas could see drier early springs like Red Lake, Kenora, Dryden and areas along the Manitoba border, Marchand said. (Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Supplied)

Saunders said these changes in conditions are also happening faster and more drastically as the climate changes and we see greater weather volatility around the world.

Climate change forces changes in preventive measures

Climate change and unpredictable weather are also pushing more agencies to work on improving data collection techniques as they relate to wildfires.

Chelene Hanes, a fire researcher with the Canadian Forest Service in Sault Ste. Marie, said the scientific models that inform things like the wildfire risk rating system are one of the areas being overhauled.

Canada’s fire services use elements of the Forest Fire Weather Index System to guide fire management decisions, including parameters to display on roadside fire danger signs. (Natural Resources Canada)

While the national system works well, and has for decades, it’s not perfect, according to Hanes. She adds that examining aspects of the fire season that have not been measured in the past will also become more important as drought conditions become more frequent and wildfires worsen.

“So these things that were ad hoc in the past are becoming more and more frequent. So I guess that’s a cause for concern…we’re trying to add more science to this because we think that, you know, at the future, we may have to count even more,” she said.

Canadian Forest Service predicts more spring fires

Hanes has also conducted research to expand understanding of the impacts of drought from season to season in Ontario.

She said that by studying the moisture content at different levels of the forest floor, the service discovered that dry conditions in the fall can impact the number of fires the following spring.

“We’ve found that for some of these areas, you can get up to, you know, at least a 25% increase in the number of fires the following spring. Keep in mind that these spring fires are often human-caused and they are often small fires,” she said.

Hanes said more attention is now being paid to monitoring conditions during the winter months, and based on the studies that have been done, the region can anticipate more fires this spring.

“Whether or not this drought continues into the spring will really depend on what happens with the snow and how much snow actually evaporates, and how much actually goes back into the ground to replenish any deficit we had from the previous fall,” she said. added.