Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Want to become a member? Check out the benefits here.
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
Get the latest summer forecast and weather knowledge from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
What you need to know about COVID-19: August 13, 2020
“That doesn't automatically mean you will have a lot of fires, it just means we think it's going to be a bit drier and so the risk of those fires is a little bit higher”
- Brian Simpson, Canadian Forest Service
It could be another busy year for firefighters in Canada.
The Canadian Forest Service released its monthly and seasonal forecast for 2020’s forest fire season and much of the country, especially the West, can expect above average or well above average conditions.
“The forecast is a combination of how much snow we think there was, how much moisture we start with and then how warm it will be and how much precipitation there will be over the next few months,” said Brian Simpson, wildland fire manager with the Canadian Forest Service.
Above average, Simpson said, means the amount of moisture will be slightly lower than expected, based on a 30-year average, and the temperature will be slightly higher. Well above average means those factors will be even more of a deviation from the average.
“Canada has warmed over the last 30 or 40 years,” he said. “All of Canada is warmer. No part of Canada escaped that.”
For Atlantic Canada, this year’s projections show a few small parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as above average risk for June, by July for the area from Halifax to the Valley in Nova Scotia, all of P.E.I. and the southern half of New Brunswick and Cape Breton, and some small parts of western and northern Newfoundland.
August shows the majority of Atlantic Canada as having above average conditions, except for most of the island of Newfoundland and the southern half of Labrador.
But even with an above-average risk, the region generally does not get a lot of forest fires and likely will not see many more fires than in recent years, Simpson said.
“That doesn't automatically mean you will have a lot of fires, it just means we think it's going to be a bit drier and so the risk of those fires is a little bit higher than it would be in an average year,” he said.
“But if no one is out there igniting fires or you don't get lightning, then there might not be any fires.”
The real concern, he said, is in Western Canada and the North, which in June, July and August from (and including) Manitoba west, as well as the Yukon and Northwest Territories, shows a well above average risk of forest fires, compared to the above average risk in the rest of Canada.
These are the areas of the country that see the most wildfire activity any given year, and Simpson points out there have been significant events every year since 2015 — 2015 saw major fires in northern Saskatchewan, in 2016 it was the Fort McMurray fires, 2017 and 2018 were both record-breaking forest fire years in B.C. and in 2019 Alberta saw large fires and evacuations.
“The last few years have been significant, not always in terms of total area burned, but in the impact of the fires,” Simpson said. “We haven’t really had a slow year in a while, and looking at this forecast we may have another year like that.”
As a result of all this fire activity, Canada has become much more prepared.
Simpson said the provinces and territories and Parks Canada do the planning for forest fire season, along with the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), which is responsible for transferring firefighting resources around the country based on need.
“Because CIFFC has been doing this for a long time, all of the firefighters across Canada have a lot of experience across the country. Canada's firefighters nationally are very well trained and very experienced. The last few years has guaranteed that pretty much everyone has been able to experience these big fires,” he said. “We are well prepared for another fire season like this.”
That preparation, Simpsons said, has included some extra consideration this year for the complicating factors of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID is certainly complicating things, (but) CIFFC and each of the agencies have been preparing to deal with the resource exchanges under COVID. They have been preparing for the changes that will have to be made in order to move firefighters across the country, house them and that sort of thing,” he said.
“The military, from what I understand, has kept their own troops isolated so they would be available if they're needed, so they have been preparing for disasters that would be exacerbated because of COVID from the start.”
In addition, each province or territory has an emergency management department within government that has been looking at how to handle evacuations if needed and ways to house evacuees that will be safe in a pandemic situation.
“Where in the past you would maybe move them all into a gymnasium with some cots, maybe this year that will be different. They're looking at alternatives,” Simpson said.
Even though the pandemic is likely to put a damper on summer camping and backyard barbecue season, the risk of wildfires is still there, and reducing human-caused fires is more important than ever, so people should continue to exercise caution and check fire restrictions in their area, Simpson said.
More information on staying safe during forest fire season is available online at firesmartcanada.ca.