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Temperatures Rising

Speed and dexterity in the fire suppression field can mean all the difference out in the woods


July 11, 2007
By Ryan Kennedy

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Speed and dexterity in the fire suppression field can mean all the
difference out in the woods, so helicopter operators need their
information as fast as possible. Unfortunately, predicting forest fires
is a fool’s game at best. “Whoever could do that would be a
multimillionaire,” said Al Beaver, fire management, science and
planning supervisor for the Yukon government’s Department of Protective
Services. “You could have a constant drizzle in the boreal forests,
then the tap turns off. In seven days you have uncontrollable ground
fires.” Although long-term weather forecasts are available through
Environment Canada, the conditions for forest fires are too erratic to
pin down, and things can change from year to year.

In
British Columbia, Eric Meyer, fire weather specialist for the Ministry
of Forests, expects the province to get hit in the dry south and
southwest regions, but he knows from experience that longrange
forecasts don’t paint the whole picture. “1993 was a classic example.
It was very dry, but there was no lightning. We had a fifth of the
lightning we usually get.” Meyer said this year has been dryer than
normal, which could be a red flag come April.

Another area,
which could be a hot spot this season, is Ontario. “Alaska and Yukon
got real beat up last year, is our turn coming?” wondered Bob Thomas,
fire information officer for Environment Canada’s Ontario branch.
“We’re sort of overdue,” he added. Thomas said making any sort of
educated guess at this point would only be folly. “Even our
meteorological nature has a way of going it’s own way.”

Without
forecasting, experts can still model for the upcoming season, basing
their estimates on many different factors in hopes of preparing for the
worst. “We’re going more day-to-day, the evolution of the season,” said
Gerard Lacasse, information co-ordinator for the Quebec Ministry of
Natural Resources’ SOPFEU [firefighting] division. In general, a long,
cold spring is the worstcase scenario, as frozen soil translates into
late growth for vegetation, and a dry landscape.

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One factor that
every expert brings up is the snow pack. Though not definitive, the
amount of snow a region gets can be a good indicator of what sort of
season is to follow. Again, however, it is a delicate balance between
too much and not enough snow. Too much snow could take longer to melt,
leaving ground dry and susceptible to burns when spring’s warmer
temperatures finally melt away the snow packs. Instead of absorbing
into the ground, the melted snows flow quickly into rivers and lakes.
Too little snow, and even the preferred gradual melt will be dicey, as
there simply isn’t enough water to keep the soil moist. If this is
followed up by a hot period of weather, flare-ups can be dramatic, as
the forest does not have a chance to regenerate itself. “Our worst
period is at the beginning of the season,” noted Lacasse. In Quebec,
July humidity can get up to 90 per cent, and plant growth can act as a
deterrent. “When the new vegetation is on the pine, on the spruce, it
is a fire stop.”

Farther east in the Atlantic provinces,
forecasters try to see the big picture. “We’ve tried this for years and
years, and what it comes down to is periods of weather,” said Wayne
Martin, supervisor of forest fire management and coordination for the
Newfoundland Department of Natural Resources. Depending on conditions,
Martin noted, the area either gets a lot of small fires, which are
generally easy to contain, or a few big fires which pose more of a
problem. Nonetheless, a small stable of light helicopters has always
done the job in the past.

On the prairies, officials are faced
with a two-pronged assault – one in early spring, and another in the
summer. According to Garth Hoeppner, weather and GIS specialist with
the Manitoba government’s Conservation Forestry Branch, the speed of
spring is a major factor for a good season. “With a quick green-up,
leaves come out, and you get good water content in the soil,” he said.
Otherwise, dry soils can lead to grassfires, a prairie hazard for local
fire suppressors. “They run fast, so they’re hard to catch,” but “once
they start, they burn out quick.” Fast-forward a month or two, and the
second wave hits. “After green-up, you’re looking for lightning and
human causes. It’s about 50-50 between those two,” that lead to serious
forest fires in the area. Unlike the grassfires, which may burn for
only a day or two, if not hours, forest fires can ravage the land for
up to three months, Hoeppner said.

In Alberta, wildfire
information officer Rick Strickland of the Department of Sustainable
Resource Development worries less about snow pack and more about
another natural factor. “The rains are the biggest factor for us out
here,” said Strickland, adding that moisture content and drought codes
are very important in his work, and monitoring the skies at all times
is crucial. “It’s also an occurrence of rain in terms of frequency,” he
noted. “Say you get an inch of moisture in a month. If you get an inch
in one day as opposed to spread out over a month, you could have
problems.”

 


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