Fires still burning throughout the north.
Residents of nine northern First Nations are back home after being evacuated to escape smoke billowing from forest fires raging near their communities.
Those residents most at risk of suffering adverse affects from the smoke, including the elderly, the young and those with respiratory problems, were temporarily relocated from their communities in early September. The First Nations involved in the evacuation included Keewaywin, Aroland, North Spirit Lake, Sandy Lake, Deer Lake, Ginoogaming, Gull Bay, Long Lake and Pays Plat.
According to Bruce O'Neill with the communications branch of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, about 1,400 First Nation members were involved in the evacuation, which was co-ordinated by Emergency Management Ontario. The last of the evacuees returned home on Sept. 20.
While the threat to these communities has abated, the forest fire situation in northern Ontario certainly has not.
According to J.J. Beechie, a communications planner and advisor with the Aviation and Forest Fire Management Branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources, as of Sept. 25 there were still 214 active fires in the province, 117 of which were considered to be not under control.
It's been a bad year for forest fires this year, Beechie said. Fire crews put out 2,000 fires during the summer months, twice the annual average. And it's been almost a quarter of a century since the province has seen this many fires in the fall.
"Typically, you don't expect to see a lot of fire in the fall," Beechie said. "You get some fires, but nothing like what we saw come through on Sept. 7."
That's the day a severe thunderstorm passed through northwestern Ontario, bringing with it more than 9,000 lightning strikes but very little rain. That, combined with the drought the region suffered through during the summer and the dry, windy days that followed the storm, resulted in close to 600 new forest fires during the following two weeks.
The timing of the new fires is more troublesome because, come the beginning of September, the number of fire fighting crews available shrinks by about half, J.J. Beechie said.
"A lot of them are students and they returned to school in September," he said, adding that calling out to other provinces for more additional manpower is no good because most of them are in the same boat as Ontario.
With so many fires and so little manpower, it's obvious fire crews won't be able to get all the fires out before winter hits, so they're taking a strategic approach to their fire fighting.
Number one priority, Beechie said, is protecting people and property, and infrastructure like bridges, pipelines and hydro facilities.
"And the next thing is to build a fire break on the sides of fires that we think are most likely to create a problem ... we're building fire break and then maybe putting it out to 100 feet inside and letting those fires sort of smolder away."
As of Sept. 26, none of the fires in the north were posing a threat to any communities.
"Once they get within a 16-kilometre circle of a community, that's when we start to actively suppress them," Beechie said. "So there's nothing like that fight now."
The rains that came in mid-September helped to tame some of the forest fires that are still burning and to keep new ones from starting up, but fire crews are still battling a number of large blazes.
"There are still two fires that are over 10,000 hectares, four fires over 4,000 hectares, 17 that are over 1,000 hectares and 43 over 100 hectares. Normally, we consider it a success if we can keep a fire under four hectares, so you can see we've got a lot of fire that's gotten away from us," Beechie said.
Mother Nature played a major role in causing the current fire situation, and it's Mother Nature that the ministry is counting on to get the situation in check, Beechie said.
"The comment is, if we can secure the perimeters of these fires, tanker one will take care of the rest, and tanker one is actually Mother Nature. If we get enough rain and snow and moisture on them, that should help get them out."
But even if Mother Nature is in a co-operative mood, Beechie expects some of the fires will go into the ground when the snow begins to fly, then begin anew when the warmer weather returns.
"They'll burn like a slow match," he said. "So there will be smoke out of them, you know, first thing in the spring."
BY CHERYL PETTEN