WINNIPEG — Several provincial campgrounds have officially opened for the season but Manitobans won’t be able to have a campfire, or go for a hike or bike ride on most popular trails.
Tinder dry conditions have prompted the province to impose new fire restrictions that prohibit not only fires but also essentially any and all backcountry travel in southern Manitoba provincial parks.
Closures that cover mostly all trails, even those in parks closer to Winnipeg like Beaudry and Birds Hill.
It’s all due to an extreme fire risk, further limiting what people can do in the outdoors.
“Very disappointing,” said camper Bonnie Brown.
Brown and daughter Sydney are spending a few days camping at Birds Hill. They reserved their site weeks ago and were looking forward to having a fire but aren’t surprised they can’t.
“Because we haven’t had much rain,” said Brown. “It’s pretty dry and sort of dangerous.”
But it hasn’t stopped people from getting out to take advantage of the start of camping season.
The latest fire and travel restrictions coincide with the opening day of campgrounds in several provincial parks.
Elisabeth Ostrop, manager of recreation and education services for Manitoba Parks, said people can still camp in front country or developed campsites and they can still cook with gas-powered stoves.
“Campfires are a complete no-no right now,” Ostrop said. “Everything south of the 53rd parallel has a campfire ban on in all of our provincial parks.”
More rugged provincial park trails including the Mantario Trail and Hunt Lake are now off limits even for day use and so are more accessible trails in place like Birds Hill.
A full list of trail closures in Manitoba can be found online.
Essentially every trail in a southern Manitoba provincial park, with the exception of a few in developed areas and campgrounds, has been closed to prevent more fires and keep people safe.
“You might be careful yourself but maybe someone else on the trail isn’t,” said Ostrop. “And with hiking trails there’s often only one way in or one way out.”
Photographer and avid backcountry backpacker Aaron Sivertson can’t recall a travel ban of this magnitude.
“Everything is closed and it’s all provincial parks right across the whole southern stretch of the province,” Sivertson said.
He moderates a Facebook group where users share information about the Mantario Trail. He knows some people will be disappointed but understands the reasons for the rules even though people may not be smoking or starting fires during overnight or day trips.
“The risk then becomes the fact that you’re out there and you have no way of knowing if there’s a forest fire started in the area and forest fires can spread, can change directions in minutes with the wrong conditions,” he said. “And it involves having to pull rescue workers away from maybe an active fire situation, or an active rescue or protecting someone’s property.”
“You risk starting a fire, you risk putting yourself at risk, you risk putting search and rescue workers at risk and it’s just unnecessary.”
These are measures the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) feels are necessary even though they may be unpopular amid a pandemic where health orders are already restricting many activities.
CPAWS Manitoba executive director Ron Thiessen said more than half of forest fires the organization has tracked are human caused.
“I think we need to take every precaution at this point,” said Thiessen. “Our provincial parks, our forests, our wetlands are so important. They’re so quick to be lost and they’re so long sought to come back and return into their natural state and accidents can so easily happen.”
Bonnie and Sydney Brown are making do — they have other activities planned to enjoy their stay at Birds Hill.
“Lots of walks, play some cards, have a few beverages,” said Bonnie. “That’s about it. Roast marshmallows on the campstove.”
The province said you’re still allowed to access lakes and rivers in provincial parks by boat but landing and launching is restricted to developed shorelines only.
“You just can’t go and pull up on shore somewhere and have a picnic on the shore,” said Ostrop. “None of the portages on any of the backcountry canoe routes would be open because backcountry travel is restricted due to the fires right now.”
“For people that are fishing they can go out on the lake and enjoy fishing from an actual physical boat launch and then return back to the main launch area. Any developed boat launches are still usable. The ones in the backcountry are a no-go at the moment.”
So far no travel bans have been announced for trails in Riding Mountain National Park.
Outside provincial parks, many municipalities also have fire restrictions in place.
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