Manitoba officials brace for potential record-breaking wildfire season

Manitoba wildfire officials are preparing for what could be one of their busiest wildfire seasons to date.

Much of the province is dealing with tinder-dry conditions following a winter with minimal snowfall.

“I don’t know if this is the worst, but it will be one of the top three for sure,” Earl Simmons, the acting wildfire director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service, told Global News.

“So it’s very concerning for us.”

Simmons says the major area of concern is the western part of the province, extending up into communities north of Swan River, including areas around Lynn Lake, The Pas, Flin Flon, Cranberry Portage, Norway House and Island Lakes.

“We’re quite concerned with some drought codes, and that’s the amount of moisture in the ground,” Simmons said. “Our forecaster has been with us for 22 years and he’s never seen the drought codes that we’re going into in that part of the province. So we’re quite concerned with that.”

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According to the Manitoba Wildfire Service, the last above-average wildfire season in Manitoba was in 2021. That year, 465 wildfires were recorded in the province, burning more than 1,262,422 acres. The 20-year average is 407 wildfires, burning 249,908 hectares.

This year, the province is starting off with drought codes even worse than in 2021. Around The Pas, the drought code is more than 3.5 times higher than in 2021, according to data collected by the service.

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Simmons says they’re busy preparing and ensuring fire crews and water bombers will be at the ready. They’re also going into Indigenous communities and training community members in firefighting.

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“We work with the communities to hire folks from the First Nations communities to help us through the fire season,” he said.

So far, there have been two wildfires in Manitoba this season, including one in Cranberry Portage in northern Manitoba that started on Monday. That fire is now contained, but Simmons says it was human-caused, which is why they’re urging Manitobans to take extreme caution this season.

This week, federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Harjit Sajjan spoke at a press conference and raised concern about the 2024 wildfire outlook across the country.

“With the heat and dryness across the country, we can expect that the wildfire season will start sooner, end later and potentially be more explosive,” Sajjan told reporters in Ottawa Wednesday.

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John Gradek, a faculty lecturer in aviation management at McGill University, says more investment is needed in fire prevention and mitigation around communities in fire-prone areas.

“The strategy we had last year was one where we would basically let those forest fires burn,” Gradek said. “Anything from northern Manitoba, northern Quebec, northern Ontario — we were not fighting every fire. It was an impossible task to fly in water, fire retardants, even crews. So the major firefighting activity that took place was around human establishments and infrastructure.”

Jim Mandeville with First Onsite Property Restoration agrees. The company restores properties after major events like wildfires and floods.

He says property owners in wildfire-prone areas can take steps to protect their property now.

“It’s making sure your eavestroughs are clean, that there’s not leaves in your eavestrough or on your roof, making sure trees are pruned, yards are well-kept,” Mandeville said.

“Especially if you live in fire-prone areas. Those communities that are in the boreal forest or close, landscaping items like woodchips against the house are a terrible idea. They look nice, they’re cheap, but they catch fire like crazy.”

Mandeville says it’s something he would like to see built into provincial fire codes.

“In our opinion, that’s really what it’s going to take to change this behaviour. And a lot of times building fire-smart isn’t necessarily the cheapest way to build, but we really need to do everything we can as a society to make that step forward to help protect our communities,” he said.

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“We shouldn’t be using flammable building materials like cedar or shake roofing in areas of the boreal forest that are prone to wildfire. You’re certainly not going to use a cedar countertop beside the stove in your kitchen.”

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