Forest fire warning system ‘lags’

Forest fire warning system ‘lags’

5 December 2006

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Ontario, Canada — Ontario is doing a good job putting out forest fires but lags behind other jurisdictions when it comes to anticipating where and when fires will spark, Ontario’s auditor general reported today.

The Ministry of Natural Resources is tasked with detecting forest fires on 90 million hectares of Crown land, and fights more than 1,300 fires annually. It uses predictions based on weather conditions, moisture in forests, and knowledge about fire behaviour to guess which areas are likely to be affected by fires.

While those methods allow Ontario to detect and quickly distinguish one-third of all forest fires, other jurisdictions — using the same methods — are detecting two-thirds of all fires, Auditor General Jim McCarter said.

“The Ministry of Natural Resources was doing a good job of suppressing forest fires once they were detected but needs to be more proactive in detecting fires,” McCarter noted in his annual report.

In the last five years, the ministry reported a 96 per cent success rate in suppressing fires according to their success guidelines. The aim is to control the fire by noon the next day or limit its extent to four hectares.

But McCarter said there were too many instances where a more timely response would have minimized damage and resulted in significantly reduced costs.

The ministry is following up on the auditor general’s recommendations, but the sheer size of Ontario’s forests must be considered when making comparisons to other jurisdictions, said Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay.

“It’s the vast area of our forest, we have a huge boreal forest area,” said Ramsay.

“We work hard at it, it’s a big operation and we’ll make some improvements.”

The auditor general also said companies that violate Ministry of Natural Resources rules must be held accountable for fires they start.

One railway company that didn’t follow ministry guidelines caused 36 fires in 2005 and more than $1 million in firefighting costs.

Ramsay said the company ended up paying the bill.

McCarter also recommended that more research go into how to protect firefighters from injuries.

In 2005, there were 285 injuries as a result of fighting forest fires and McCarter said that number could be reduced by understanding how to reduce dangers on the job.

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