Most of central and Western Canada, including Manitoba, is facing a summer of “well-above average” wildfire risk, according to the latest forecasts from Natural Resources Canada.
The high-risk warnings begin in June and hold through the summer — though by August, southern Manitoba will only be looking at “above average” risk, instead of “well-above average risk”.
The Atlantic provinces are the only ones to face average risk levels this year, according to the forecast.
“Right now, we’re seeing fairly dry conditions all across the Prairies,” said Richard Carr, a wildland fire research analyst at the Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton.
The forecasting is purely a gauge of risk, not a predictor for the number of fires the country will experience, nor area burned, Carr said. An area can have high-risk determinants, but without an ignition source, no fire will precipitate, he said.
The forecasting is based on climate models, precipitation levels over the winter, soil moisture. One of the biggest factors currently leading to higher-than-usual risk is the air masses from the Arctic descending over the country this spring.
“Arctic air tends to be very dry, especially in the spring, since the Arctic Ocean is still ice-covered. So, you don’t get much evaporation of moisture at this time of year. So if you get those Arctic air masses drifting into the Prairies, they tend to be very dry and they do have a fairly strong atmospheric pressure gradient, so it can then be windy as well,” Carr said.
Manitoba’s wildland fire service is gearing up for the summer, but despite the dire forecasts, staffing and resource levels remain at status quo.
“We take the forecasts serious, but we also recognize that they’re subject to change. They are looking quite a ways out into the year and there’s a lot of variables that come into play. Our preparation is about getting ready for the fire season like we would for any other, and if we require extra resources throughout the season, we will draw on those from our partners in other Canadian jurisdictions,” said David Schafer, director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
Schafer said the intense moisture of last fall has helped the province get off on the right foot this spring, with regard to wildfire risk.
However, what is completely foreign this year, is wildfire preparations are now being carried out amid a pandemic.
New protocols are being drawn up, Schafer said. For example, as many seasonal crew might come from out-of-province, they’ve been called in early, so they can self-isolate in Manitoba before beginning work.
“It will be a different year for us, no doubt. All of the protocols that we hear about in the public, we’re doing our best to be able to implement them — social distancing, extra cleanliness, separating crews as much as we can. But there’s only so much we can do. We’ve taken all the steps that we believe we can, right now,” Schafer said.
The health protocols are also being developed in co-ordination with fire services across the country, so from one province to the next, crew members will be familiar with the practices, regardless of where they end up.
Schafer said with increased risk on the horizon and a more complicated situation due to the pandemic, the public should try to do its part and refrain from any unnecessary fire activity. The province has implemented fire restrictions across all of Northern Manitoba.