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Canada blazing: unprecedented fire losses last year and persistent drought conditions are making officials fear the summer of '90.


As Canadian forest-fire officials enter the 1990 season, they are considerably more worried than at any other time in the country's history. Concern has risen that a four-year drought, now reaching chronic proportions in many northern areas, will leave forests vulnerable to a repeat of last year's fire season, a six-month period that saw the disastrous loss of 16.4 million acres.

With a high proportion of its forests located in remote and lightly populated areas, Canada traditionally experiences 75 percent fewer fires than does the U.S. But the difficulties of detecting and suppressing fires in such regions have meant annual woodland losses that commonly equal or double American totals.

The 1989 fire season, however, went completely off the charts. Canadian forests lost nearly 10 times more than the U.S., destruction on a scale not seen in this country since long before World War II.

Canada had previously experienced one such episode in the postwar period - a three-year surge in 1979-81 when 10 to 13 million acres were lost each season. At that time, however, yearly firefighting expenditures were less than half of today's levels.

Since then, some $250 million has been invested in the purchase of 29 aerial water bombers, the installation of 125 computer-linked lightning-detection sensors, plus a doubling of the annual budget to nearly $300 million. These efforts have proved invaluable in returning losses to their more traditional norms (two to four million acres annually), despite a steady increase in the number of fires.

Last year, though, saw an estimated 12,200 ignitions, itself a new record, and Forestry Canada spokesman Dennis Dube said, "I think that if we're going to look at 12,000 fires again in 1990, we'll have the same levels of loss."

Another 12,000-fire season is a distinct possibility, say officials at the Canadian Inter-Agency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba. For example, "We certainly haven't had any moisture in this province," said CIFFC spokesman Tom Johnston. Water levels are 25 percent below normal in much of the north, he said.

"The over-winter has frozen dry again," Johnston added, using a Canadian expression that means that the ground was dry when it froze and remained dry over the winter. "And with the snowmelt likely to run off rather quickly," he said, "Manitoba will be right back into the same early-spring situation that happened last year, only now you're talking about a three-year drought accumulation."

In 1989, the province spent $64 million fighting over 1,100 fires, which consumed 6.7 million acres. Midsummer blazes forced the evacuation of some 23,000 people from small northern communities and Indian reserves. It was "the worst civil disaster in our history," Premier Gary Filmon told federal and provincial heads of government.

Much of last year's destruction in Manitoba is attributed to a climate pattern known as an Omega Block. A month of extremely hot weather accompanied by very low humidity was followed by a flux of upper-air moisture from the U.S. Dry lightning was the inevitable result, with some storms sending 10,000 strikes to ground in a 24-hour period.

Oddly enough, the 1988 fire season, despite excessive heat and drought, saw far less destruction in Manitoba and the rest of Canada (3.2 million acres), mainly because the air flowing north was much drier than last year, resulting in significantly less lightning activity.

Excessive lightning or not, persistent drought will mean that many areas of Canada can almost be guaranteed to experience heavy losses again this year.

Quebec forests, for instance, face a major four-year moisture problem. Last year the province had fire losses totaling 5.2 million acres, nearly as much as Manitoba. Drought is so entrenched that the province's hydroelectric utility has reported a sixth consecutive year of low reservoir levels, a situation that has Hydro Quebec very concerned about the future of its massive James Bay development project.

The effects of this prolonged drought are compounded by Quebec's strictly adhered-to management policy of not attacking fires in some 195 million acres of woodland north of the 51st parallel. In that region, designated as an observation zone, no fire is even reported unless it is accidentally spotted by a commercial airline pilot or someone in a small bush plane. An attack on such a fire is mounted rarely, and only if one of the area's few settlements is threatened.

The results of that policy are as one might expect: out of a total of 1,158 fires in Quebec in 1989, only 94 were reported in the observation zone, yet those 94 burned over 99 percent of the total acreage lost.

Canada's forest drought has become a concern not only of fire-management officials but also of those dealing with climate change and global warming. "The amount of carbon dioxide given off by wildfires is a critical issue coming out of last year's situation," said Don McIvor, a forestry specialist with the Atmospheric Environmental Service in Toronto.

Referring to an earlier Forestry Canada research paper on [CO.sub.2] emissions from four major sources - fossil fuels, wildfires, prescribed burning, and fuelwood - McIvor noted that because of forest fires a 30 percent increase in overall [CO.sub.2] emissions occurred in '89. Presently, Canadian politicians are considering whether or not to adopt a 20 percent reduction strategy.

With [CO.sub.2] now a significant environmental concern, "forest fires have become a wildcard in the equation," according to McIvor. Forestry minister Frank Oberle was noncommittal about the injection of increased funds into the firefights of coming years. However, he stated emphatically that Canada is not willing to accept the 1989 levels of woodland loss through the 1990s.

PHOTO : The Sandy River fire boils up menacingly in eastern Manitoba in May 1989.

PHOTO : Waterbombers are a first line of fire defense. Here a Canadair amphibian makes 10-second scoop from a lake, left, and then a spectacular drop in mountains.
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Author:Nixon, Doug
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:The lands nobody knows.
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