Strafed by more than 150,000 lightning strikes in the space of five days, Ontario’s tinder-dry forests were being ravaged by fire Tuesday as officials warned they may not have enough personnel on hand to keep the blazes under control.
There were 147 active forest fires in the province, 63 of which started Monday, and more than 1,500 firefighters on the ground in the battle – 207 of whom were on loan from the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and the western provinces.
The province has seen twice the number of fires this year as the 10-year average – but has managed through proactive firefighting to keep them smaller than normal, said Ontario Fire Information Officer Bob Thomas.
The problem isn’t the number of fires, it’s the number of firefighters, Thomas said.
“We don’t have enough people to put people on all those fires,” he said Tuesday from his office in Sault Ste. Marie.
“We have fires burning with no staff on them.”
One hundred campers had to be evacuated Monday from the Big Water Lake Campground near Timmins when a nearby blaze got close enough to pose a serious threat.
The campground’s owner, Marian Tremblay, said most of the campers have returned home, although a few were either staying with friends in the area or at nearby hotels.
Although the fire wasn’t directly headed for the campground, erratic winds could have easily blown it off course, Thomas said.
David Ramsay, the province’s natural resources minister, said he’s been keeping a close eye on the fire threat, which often depends more on the whims of Mother Nature than anything else.
“It’s a big fire season, it’s always a worry,” Ramsay said. “Especially when you’ve got weather coming through like we’ve had.”
But Ramsay said he’s pleased with the way Ontario’s firefighters have kept the fires under control so far – most notably new technology that allows the province to keep closer track of lightning strikes and deal with fires soon after they begin.
“I think that’s why we’ve had some good success,” he said. Ontario has seen 43 per cent of the country’s forest fires so far this year, but lost less than 2 per cent of the area burned across Canada, Ramsay added.
“We have a very rapid response.”
Some provinces, like British Columbia, won’t be able to send any more help because they’re dealing with their own fire problems.
The province has one fire out of control that’s taking up a lot of resources, and they expect more blazes to crop up in the coming days, said Radha Fisher, B.C.’s provincial fire information officer.
“We’re seeing most of the province in high fire danger, and we’re starting to see some areas of extreme,” Fisher said, adding that more than 130 firefighters are headed back to B.C. for a rest after helping in Ontario’s fight.
“Our indication at this point is to not send anyone right away.”
All provincial firefighters are managed by a central agency in Winnipeg, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which monitors needs and surplus across Canada and sends crews accordingly. Ontario has asked for more help, but Thomas said he’d never ask a province to send people it needs at home.
Ontario’s biggest fire is about 100 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, said Thomas, and it’s 5,000 hectares in size. It’s just one of 50 blazes that are burning out of control across the province, Thomas said.
The fire that caused Big Water Lake Campground’s evacuation, the only one so far to pose a danger to people, was being held steady Tuesday by firefighters, he added.
Forest fire researcher Tim Lynham of the federal Canadian Forest Service said Canada’s fire situation has been about average so far this year.
In the past couple of years British Columbia has seen some massive fires, but Lynham said the pendulum this year has decided to swing over to Ontario and Quebec, both of which are dealing with bad fire seasons.
The rest of Canada has stayed relatively fire-free, Lynham said.
Quebec has seen 800,000 hectares of forest consumed by fires this year, three times more than the 10-year average, said Lynham.
Ramsay said that last year Ontario sent firefighters across the country to help out British Columbia and Alberta, who are now repaying the favour.
“We all get our turn, when the weather fluctuates,” Ramsay said. “It’s like a mutual aid system.”