May 24, 2018

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No relief in sight: Lack of rain in Winnipeg forecast drives summer fire fears higher

PROVINCE OF MANITOBA</p><p>Caddy Lake fire Sunday, May 13, 2018.</p>

PROVINCE OF MANITOBA

Caddy Lake fire Sunday, May 13, 2018.

The drought plaguing Winnipeg and leaving it blanketed in bone-dry, tinder-like conditions, extends into day 32 Tuesday, officially placing it in the history books as one of the top-five worst to hit the city.

The last time Winnipeg got some relief in the form of measurable precipitation (at least 0.2 millimetres) was April 12. Since March 21, the city has seen 5.4 mm of precipitation, making it the driest spring on record since 1980.

That's not likely to change until Thursday, when Environment Canada is forecasting overnight showers. However, according to senior climatologist Dave Phillips, while Winnipeg has experienced drier springs, the current situation might be the worst on record.

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The drought plaguing Winnipeg and leaving it blanketed in bone-dry, tinder-like conditions, extends into day 32 Tuesday, officially placing it in the history books as one of the top-five worst to hit the city.

The last time Winnipeg got some relief in the form of measurable precipitation (at least 0.2 millimetres) was April 12. Since March 21, the city has seen 5.4 mm of precipitation, making it the driest spring on record since 1980.

PROVINCE OF MANITOBA </p>

PROVINCE OF MANITOBA

That's not likely to change until Thursday, when Environment Canada is forecasting overnight showers. However, according to senior climatologist Dave Phillips, while Winnipeg has experienced drier springs, the current situation might be the worst on record.

Parched province

Due to hot, dry, and windy conditions in much of the province, the Manitoba government has instituted a number of restrictions to help prevent wildfires:

Due to hot, dry, and windy conditions in much of the province, the Manitoba government has instituted a number of restrictions to help prevent wildfires:

 

  • All burning permits have been cancelled for eastern, central, and parts of western Manitoba. New permits won’t be issued until conditions improve.
  • Travel restrictions remain in place for eastern, central, and parts of western Manitoba. In addition, travel restrictions are in place for the Mars Hill Wildlife Management Area and southern Manitoba provincial parks.
  • Campfire restrictions are in place for all provincial parks in southern Manitoba. Fires are only allowed in approved fire pits from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. However, that may soon change, as a provincial spokesman has indicated a total fire ban is under consideration.
  • An open-air fire ban remains in effect in Winnipeg. To find out if other municipalities have also instituted similar bans, contact them directly or check respective websites.

"Spring is sort of an artificial beginning. What you want to do is look back to October (2017). That’s when the recharge season would have begun, which is when you build back moisture into the soil, the lakes, the reservoirs, so you are able to deal with the warm months," Phillips said.

"But this dry period, this drought, whatever you want to call it, began back in October (2017). It really stopped precipitating in October. The recharge this year has been the worst in (Winnipeg) history, which means the situation is potentially more disastrous."

The dry conditions are largely responsible for the recent uptick of brush fires keeping city fire crews on their toes. So far in 2018, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has responded to 57 such brush fires. In 2017, the department responded to a total of 85.

While the rain forecasted to fall Thursday will be welcome, it isn't likely to help much, according to Phillips.

"That’s not going to be the rescue rain you need. You want to look at the forecast and see four days of rain in a row to even begin to correct the situation," he said.

The situation hasn’t been limited to Winnipeg, with 102 wildfires sparking throughout the province. Of those, 44 remain active and six are currently listed as out of control. On Monday, the province had eight helicopters, six water bombers and 82 extra firefighters battling wildfires.

Earl Simmons, a Manitoba Sustainable Development regional field supervisor, said provincial forest firefighters are concerned about what’s coming down the pipe this summer.

"There’s concern from everybody involved in the profession, given the dry conditions and a healthy respect for fires and what they can do. Guys are recognizing the potential for fires out there," Simmons said.

The province has already had to rely on outside help this spring, calling in crews from Ontario to give provincial personnel a break, Simmons said, adding he hasn't seen conditions this dry since the late 1980s.

"Our crews have been working steady since the beginning of the year. Some of our crews have been working for 24 days straight," he said.

Evacuation in Caddy Lake

A wildfire that struck the Caddy Lake area near the Ontario border late Sunday afternoon has left cottagers nervous and forced some residents to evacuate.

Seven water bombers were called in to douse the flames from both sides of the Manitoba-Ontario border, circling the lake for roughly three hours, according to Earl Simmons, a Manitoba Sustainable Development regional field supervisor.

A wildfire that struck the Caddy Lake area near the Ontario border late Sunday afternoon has left cottagers nervous and forced some residents to evacuate.

Seven water bombers were called in to douse the flames from both sides of the Manitoba-Ontario border, circling the lake for roughly three hours, according to Earl Simmons, a Manitoba Sustainable Development regional field supervisor.

Simmons called the deployment of seven water bombers to a single fire “fairly unprecedented,” but said it was key in battling the blaze, which “increased in size rapidly.”

The province said the wildfire was sparked after a tree fell on a Manitoba Hydro power line during a wind storm. About 20 people have been evacuated from the area and crews continue to battle the blaze, which is contained but still out of control, Simmons said.

“While we have the fire surrounded, there’s always the potential for that fire to get up into the trees and jump the fire line,” he said.

In total, the wildfire has torched roughly 95 acres of land. Highway 312 has been closed from Highway 44 to the Ontario border.

So far no property or infrastructure – including the nearby Whiteshell fish hatchery and the Mantario Trial – has been damaged.

This is the second time an evacuation has been called in Caddy Lake due to a wildfire in the past few years. In 2016, a significant wildfire, which burned thousands of acres, threatened the community and forced cottagers to evacuate.

-- Nick Martin and Ryan Thorpe

In addition, Simmons said the province is currently mulling a total fire ban – even in fire pits – due to the dry, windy conditions. It remains unclear if the province intends to implement such a total ban prior to the May long weekend.

Phillips said the forecast for Manitoba’s summer – and the effect that will have on forest firefighters – isn’t good.

"The current situation is bleak. The prospects are for it to get worse. But that weather isn’t born yet. You can’t look out the window and say this will be the weather come forest fire season. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty, but what is known is not good," Phillips said.

That means unless something changes, and fast, it’s likely to be a busy season for forest firefighters, and one where the action isn’t limited to a single portion of the province.

"The situation will become worse for forest firefighters if, in fact, the whole province is under flames. Where do you go to fight it? The problem is the whole province seems fairly dry, so there’s potential to have wildfires in several areas," Phillips said.

"The forests in Manitoba are a tinderbox. A thunderstorm could be very bad news. It’s just a spark away from happening. It could be lightning. It could be a vehicle backfiring. It could be people purposefully setting them.

"Everybody wants the rain, because the situation isn’t good right now. One just has to hope the weather patterns turn around and bring some."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

History

Updated on Monday, May 14, 2018 at 7:13 PM CDT: Fixes typo in fact box

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