Canada Blazing: Unprecedented Fire Losses Last Year and Persistent Drought Conditions Are Making Officials Fear the Summer of '90

By Nixon, Doug | American Forests, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

Canada Blazing: Unprecedented Fire Losses Last Year and Persistent Drought Conditions Are Making Officials Fear the Summer of '90


Nixon, Doug, American Forests


CANADA BLAZING

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. …

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