The 1995 fire season in Canada was truly national in scope with all agencies involved in either mobilization or suppression activities.
The period from 28 May until 7 July saw the largest mobilization of resources on record. Over 1000 fire management personnel had moved, including 520 personnel from the United States. In excess of 500 pumps with 8000 lengths of hose, complete communication systems, large amounts of fireline handtools and camping equipment were mobilized during that short period of time. This massive mobilization of resources put Canada’s cooperative system of resource sharing to the test.
Once again the Canadian forest fire season began with low over-winter precipitation bringing the northern portions of British Columbia (BC), Alberta (AB), Saskatchewan (SK), Manitoba (MB), northwestern Ontario and the southern half of the Northwest (NT) and Yukon (YT) Territories into the fire season, with extremely high drought codes (DC). Above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation across the northern portions of the western provinces and territories further increased the fire occurrence and fire severity potential. The above-normal temperatures slowly spread across northern Canada from Saskatchewan right through to the Atlantic leaving behind a trail of multiple fire occurrence and large fire activity.
28 May ushered in the fire season with a vengeance. Extensive lightning activity spread across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba producing multiple fire starts.
Saskatchewan was hit the hardest with numerous starts being recorded daily over the next five days. Severe fire behaviour resulted in many fires escaping initial attack, growing quickly to project fire status and soaking up resources. Competition for available air tankers and helicopters was increasing rapidly and large quantities of fireline equipment was being moved into Saskatchewan. By 3 June problem fires were being reported in BC, AB, SK, MB, ON and Quebec (QC). Evacuations and road closures had occurred, open fire bans were in effect in all four western provinces and the first reported forest fire related fatality had occurred in Alberta. The Northwest Territories joined in later that week with two problem fires, one causing the evacuation of a northern community. Extreme fire conditions in other agencies restricted the availability of resources. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) began to look to the National Incident Command Center (NICC) in the United States (US) for communication equipment and large numbers of sustained action crews.
Slightly moderating weather conditions helped some western agencies during the next two weeks, but the heat and extreme conditions continued their progression east. By mid-June the fire intensity resumed with multiple fire starts occurring once again in AB, SK, MB and now Ontario (ON). Agencies that had loaned airtanker were beginning to recall then due to conditions at home. Requests for skimmer type airtankers could not be filled with none becoming available in the foreseeable future.
To help alleviate the problem land based tankers and portable retardant mixing systems were mobilized into MB and ON. To help integrate the land based systems air attack officers familiar with both land based and skimmer operations were mobilized. During the 10 day period from 16 to 25 June ON experienced in excess of 600 new starts with many escaping initial attack and growing to project status. With the situation modifying somewhat in BC and AB, they were able to supply much needed initial attack and sustained action crews along with the US to ON. Fireline resources were moving in from all available sources across the country. With this continued escalation of fire activity came the next fire tragedy. Three fire related fatalities occurred in a helicopter crash in northern Manitoba. Problem fires were now being listed in YT, NT, SK, MB, ON with resources being drawn down daily.
The heat and resulting fire activity continued its trek east across ON and into QC. From 29 June to 2 July QC received 200 fires and once again a number of fires escaped initial attack. Requests for resources again poured in, and again agencies responded within their capabilities. Throughout the first week of July, QC continued to draw in resources to assist in suppressing its fires. QC instituted the emergency signing of the Canada/United States Forest Fire Fighting Reciprocal Arrangement to access US resources through CIFFC. Full-scale suppression activity was now occurring in NT, YT, SK, MB, ON and QC with BC beginning to recall their resources in anticipation of escalating fire activity back home.
By this time CIFFC had responded to over 100 resource requests resulting in the largest mobilization of manpower and equipment in Canadian history. The United States through the NICC was relied on heavily for the supply of professional forest fire fighters, communications equipment and high level infrared photography. Agencies such as YT, ON and QC activated their border agreements with individual US State fire organizations to acquire additional resources. Helicopters had been imported from US based companies and initial reviews were being looked at for off-shore resources. Although resources were stretched to the limit and with the exception of CL-215 aircraft all requests received at CIFFC were responded to.
The period from the third week of July through to the second week of August, which is historically the most active, was comparatively quiet. This allowed the agencies to gain control of many of their project fires and begin to return some of the resources that have been mobilized. Although the weather had moderated somewhat, many areas still reported high to extreme drought codes with potential head fire intensity predictions capable of producing crown fire activity. Activity again began to escalate in the east with Quebec and Ontario receiving double digit fire starts almost daily.
Prolonged drought and severe burning conditions again resulted in escaped fires. Air tankers, fire suppression equipment, initial attack and sustained action crews were once again mobilized into Ontario and Quebec. At the height of this renewed fire activity all the CL-215’s in Canada except for 2 NF air tankers, in excess of 1,200 initial attack and sustain action forces which included over 400 personnel from the US had been mobilized for either ON or QC. Availability of personnel was good due to moderating fire conditions from Manitoba west and through NICC in the US. The only thing that slowed mobilization was the availability of large Canadian transport aircraft.
Even with extensive use of the NICC large transport jets some personnel movements had to be delayed one or two days.
Tab.1. Canada forest fire statistics for January to October 1995
A fire originating in the US Superior National Forest crossed the border into Canada between Atikokan and Thunder Bay. The fire was actioned initially through a Canada/US cooperative effort and then due to the extreme fire load in ON the fire was turned over to the US to manage until control was obtained, then reverted back to ON.
The season concluded with CIFFC responding to 185 resource requests which resulted in 2,618 personnel including over 900 from the United States, 26 air tankers groups for a total 67 air tankers, 1,088 pump kits, 22,134 lengths of hose, 1,644 sprinkler heads, 27 complete communication systems from the US, 5,213 assorted hand tools plus camping gear and other items. Due to the abnormally quiet fire season in the United States, CIFFC was able to make extensive use of their suppression crews, large transport jets, high level infrared aircraft and other resources. Once again CIFFC broke all previous records for mobilization in all resource categories. This year tested the operational procedures, agreements and exchange standards that have been developed and are in place for many of the agencies including CIFFC. The continued development and acceptance of national standards for all resources and operational procedures will continue to raise the level of forest fire management in Canada.
Throughout the fire season CIFFC utilized the series of daily Fire Severity maps from the Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre. These maps confirmed that the actual areas of fire occurrence, matched with the maps that forecasted the spread of fire potential across Canada and also the potential for large fire occurrence. These maps proved invaluable to CIFFC by providing a general national overview of the hazards, and gave CIFFC a good forewarning of potential fire areas.
Canada as a whole experienced a slightly below average fire year. Up to October 8,302 fires were recorded compared to an ten year average of 9,621. On the down side fire consumed 7,132,370 ha of forested land in Canada compared to a 10-year average of 2,321,146 ha.
The following statistics (up to October) show that out of a total of 8,302 fires burning 7,132,370 ha, 648 were actioned under a Modified Response, consuming 4,173,593 ha. A Modified Response fire is one that is allowed to burn within set policy and management guidelines or may be actioned in a limited manner to bring the fire back into those guidelines. The fires that received a Modified Response account for only 7.7% of the total fires to date, but 58.5% of the total area consumed.
From: Tom Johnston
Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre
210-301 Weston Street
CDN – Winnipeg, Manitoba R3E 3H4