Ontario’s forest fire season is much improved with just one-third the number of blazes as last year at this time, but with changing conditions officials are reminding campers and cottagers to keep their fires modest and to put them out at night.
In contrast to a hectic 2018 — when one persistent cottage-country fire near Parry Sound forced evacuations, jumped a CN rail line, came close to Highway 69 and sent dense smoke toward Sudbury and North Bay — there have been 373 forest fires to date.
“We have seen some more precipitation come through and a lot fewer fires caused by lightning,” Shayne McCool, a fire information officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, told the Star from his office in Sudbury.
The 373 fires is a sharp drop from the 1,048 that had been reported or were burning at this point last year. The 10-year average is now 660 annually.
“We don’t currently have any fires in the Parry Sound area, so that’s certainly a good sign,” McCool said Wednesday.
That fire last summer, officially known as Parry Sound 33, occupied as many as 500 specially trained forest firefighters daily at its peak. Other massive blazes stretched from the North Bay area up to Temagami and left 12,000 hectares of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park in flames.
Conditions were so hazardous a year ago that open fires were restricted along a line stretching more than 300 kilometres westward from the Ontario-Quebec boundary near North Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, straight north and across to Timmins and Kirkland Lake.
It was the worst fire season in more than a decade and came with a firefighting price tag of almost $208 million.
McCool warned dryer, windier and less-humid conditions south of Sudbury and to the west are making that region “an area of concern” as the summer vacation season continues this year, with daytime fire bans in some areas of the province.
“Many of our fires are caused by unextinguished campfires so we would like to remind the public to choose their site carefully when they are preparing to have a fire,” he said.
That means making sure there is a water bucket or hose nearby, that the spot is sheltered from wind so sparks don’t fly and that the fire is built on bare rock or soil.
“Clear a space one metre around the campfire site, removing all the twigs, pine needles, grasses and leaves, anything that’s combustible, and keep the fire small,” McCool recommended.
“Don’t exceed one metre in height and one metre in diameter. The smaller your fire the easier it is to manage.”
To put out a fire, soak it with water, use a stick to uncover any hot embers and soak them again — and never leave a campfire unattended, McCool added.
The only fire not under control in the province is in the Sioux Lookout district. It has burned through 333 hectares.
Conditions are generally dryer in northwestern Ontario, where there are now 33 fires on the go, compared with just two in northeastern Ontario.
The biggest, near Cochrane, started July 4 and has blackened 74 hectares but is being left to burn naturally, although it is under observation. The other is south of Algonquin Park near Major Lake and is under control at less than a hectare in size.
Both are being left to burn naturally and the causes are not known at this time.
“When a fire is able to burn in its natural environment, we will allow that to take place as long as human activity or infrastructure is not impacted by it,” McCool said. “Fire is a natural part of the boreal forest. It will actually allow that area to rejuvenate over time.”
Fires, for example, burn old leaves. dead wood and ground vegetation that can hamper growth. They’re also essential to thinning the forest canopy to keep a balance so that plants dependent on shade don’t outpace those needing sunlight.
The slower pace of forest fires this year means the ministry is ready to pounce on any that do flare up, McCool said.
“All our resources are ready to respond.”
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Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1