By Sue Tiffin
Within two hours of a total fire ban being declared on May 12 by each of the four municipalities within Haliburton County, a fire call came in. Algonquin Highlands fire services, with the assistance of Minden Hills fire department, Haliburton Highlands OPP and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry responded to a large bush fire in Algonquin Highlands.
While the fire was caused by what AH fire chief and county fire co-ordinator Michael French called “natural causes,” being potentially related to hydro wires sparking, it was a sizeable fire a hectare in size that had firefighters on scene for seven hours because the bush is so dry.
“The one thing we really want to stress is that it’s not necessarily the impact of the fire itself, it’s the impact on the fire services in general, because all our resources in Dorset and Stanhope and a lot of resources from Minden were all tied up with that bushfire. You don’t have the opportunity to provide the other essential services in our community such as for structure fires and medical response, too.”
Extremely dry conditions caused in part by a lack of sufficient rainfall have resulted in a fire danger rating of “Extreme.”
“Right now we’re very susceptible to the dryness because there’s no canopy in the bush,” said French. “It’s usually there to block the sun, but right now the sun is going right down to the ground.”
That area of the ground, made up of decomposing organic material, is called the duff layer, which French said is so dry as a result of the sun “baking it,” with nothing to deflect the impact of the sun which has firefighters hoping for both rain and leaf cover. French said the same type of fire can happen as happened on May 12 simply by careless disposal of still-lit cigarettes.
The county-wide total ban was called earlier that day after the municipality’s four fire chiefs had reviewed the day’s indices from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The indices share readings of, for example, the fuel moisture guide and the duff layer moisture relative to the humidity forecast, which result in ratings such as the Extreme rating of May 12. The fire chiefs meet for a conference call or email every Thursday morning and base any outdoor fire restrictions, or burn bans, on those numbers. The current ban will be in place until at least the following Thursday when they meet again to review updated Ministry numbers.
The ban means that residents can use propane barbecues and portable gas, propane or liquid-fuel cooking stoves, but cannot have campfires or bonfires, use fireworks, charcoal barbecues, outdoor candles and lanterns, tiki torches, propane firepits or firebowls, chimineas, or burn leaves or brush at this time.
“We’re just trying to eliminate any source of ignition,” said French.
Daytime burning permits and firework permits are suspended until further notice.
“We don’t have a lot of rain forecast,” said French. “The rain for [May 14] is one millimetre and that won’t make a difference. We just have to get through this time.” (While more significant rainfall occurred on May 16, the public is reminded that doesn’t result in an immediate lifting of the ban.)
French said in Haliburton County, there’s “one voice, one message” from the four departments, as bans can vary by jurisdiction elsewhere.
“Right now in general, most municipalities have bans on,” he said.
There’s zero tolerance for anyone not abiding by the burn ban at this time.
“It’s like fishing, you have to know what you’re doing before you do it,” he said. “Ignorance isn’t an excuse.”
French said the same night the ban was put into place, after the bush fire, a truck responded to a call about a fire occurring in Algonquin Highlands that resulted in the person responsible being billed over $500 – that’s the bill per hour, truck that attends the site in question. Those responsible for an uncontrolled burn during this time are facing even greater financial penalties, all based on Ministry of Transportation rates.
“If you have a fire during the burn ban, and it gets away on you, you’re responsible for all costs,” said French, and then, calculating the number of trucks deployed to the bush fire the day before, he said: “That call yesterday, if it wasn’t an act of nature, it probably would have resulted in a fine upwards of $30,000 or $40,000. It adds up fast.”
Those reporting fires at this time should call 911.
“We take it very seriously because when we have a bush fire, it impacts the sites, the lives of the community members who are at risk – each one of these firefighters come from their employment – the impact on the environment itself. Once a fire starts, it can go for miles without us being able to get ahead of it, just the way it is right now.”
When the Ministry’s ratings are below Extreme again, French said the four departments in the municipality will discuss the conditions, and the ban will likely be lifted.
“Our goal is for the people to have the opportunity to have campfires,” said French. “I’d really like to see it come up before the long weekend but if it’s not safe to, we’re not going to.”
To check on fire ban status in Minden Hills, call 249-802-3535. In Algonquin Highlands, call 705-766-0010.
A provincial daytime burning policy annually comes into effect during the fire season on April 1 until Oct. 31, meaning during that time residents in the fire region cannot have outdoor fires between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. without a permit. Residents are subject to fines if they are found to be in violation of these regulations.