A number of large forest fires have blazed across Manitoba so far this year.
Since March 22, 103 fires have broken out in the province — 77 of which were human-caused, 21 were due to natural occurrences, and five are still under investigation. Manitoba logged 149 fires in 2020.
Firefighting crews have been rushed in from British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec to assist local forces in their efforts. As of Friday afternoon, the infernos had scorched some 712,000 acres of land — just over half the area of Prince Edward Island.
An abnormally dry spring created dangerous conditions for wildfires in the province. Southern regions were "severely dry to extremely dry" in March, April and May, according to the Manitoba Drought Monitor.
There is some good news, said Rob Paolo, a retired Environment Canada meteorologist and volunteer climate observer.
"Southern Manitoba has received some good precipitation in June," he said. "Last week, we received quite a substantial amount."
It should help dampen fire conditions in the south, but the Interlake region remains parched.
"Since April 1, they’ve only had 50 to 80 millimetres of precipitation, which is about 50 per cent of normal," said Paolo.
Combined with sustained dryness leading up to spring, that puts the region in a drought of a severity seen just once every 10 to 20 years, he said.
To quench the area and quell wildfires, Paolo suspects 100-150 mm of rain would need to fall. That’s not impossible, but the trend doesn’t look good, he said.
By far the province’s largest fire this year continues to burn in the Interlake near Gypsumville, 36 days after it first sparked. It currently covers almost 510,000 acres.
It provides a startling reminder how quickly a wildfire can spread given the right conditions. While on most days, growth was minimal, the fire expanded some 445,000 acres in three days (May 17-19).
On May 19, more than 750 people from five Manitoba First Nations communities — Lake St. Martin, Little Saskatchewan, Pinaymootang, Skownan, and Dauphin River — evacuated the area due to smoke. Canadian Red Cross spokesman Jason Small said the relief organization supported the evacuation, but the communities carried out the operations themselves and residents had returned by May 23.
In connection with the Gypsumville blaze, conservation officers charged a landowner with failure to take precautions to keep a fire under control under the Wildfire Act, after a debris fire restarted, according to a news release from the province last week.
The province’s wildfire program has a budget of $49 million, but actual costs vary based on the severity of the fire season, said a spokesman from the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
— with files from Kevin Rollason