CANADA

A season of infernos

Fires raged out of control in three provinces

GREG W. TAYLOR August 7 1989
CANADA

A season of infernos

Fires raged out of control in three provinces

GREG W. TAYLOR August 7 1989

A season of infernos

Fires raged out of control in three provinces

His face blackened with soot and streaked with sweat, a bleary-eyed William Spence, 23, gasped for air as he backed away from the intense heat of the flaming jackpines and poplar just a few metres away. Spence, a resident of Nelson House, 75 km west of Thompson, Man., was in a 15member crew of firefighters battling the blaze near his home community. But with northwesterly winds fanning the flames, Spence and his fellow firefighters were forced to retreat. “It is getting dangerous with so much smoke,” said Spence. “You can’t breathe and you can’t see.” Across northern Manitoba, other teams shared the same problem as they battled the worst outbreak of forest fires in the province’s history. The fire near Nelson House was just one of nearly 250 blazes ravaging Manitoba last week—and about 870 burning throughout the country at the same time. Said Manitoba Natural Resources Minister Harry Enns on July 24: “The whole North is one big blaze right now.”

Late last week, scattered rains helped firefighters bring some of those blazes under control. But the rains did little to counteract the effects of two successive years of drought conditions in the tinder-dry forests of northern Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan. At week’s end, almost 560 fires, bolstered by

gusting winds, high temperatures and unpredictable lightning storms, were still raging out of control in those provinces alone, with Manitoba bearing the brunt of the devastation. So far this year, the province has had about 922 fires—compared with 406 in the first half of 1987—and the firefighting bill has already topped $35 million. And in one of the largest evacuations in Manitoba’s history, more than 23,000 people were moved from their small communities in northern Manitoba to Thompson, Winnipeg and elsewhere. One elderly woman suffered a fatal heart attack while being evacuated, but, almost miraculously, there were no known deaths as a direct result of the fires. Still, some experts warned that the situation could quickly deteriorate even further. More ominously, they speculated that the global warming trend could cause worse problems in the years ahead.

In fact, last week’s continuing inferno in northern Manitoba was the second major outbreak of fire in the province’s forests this year. Firefighters have had their hands full since the spring, when an early advent of hot and dry weather led to a rash of fires in mid-May that consumed almost 2,000 square miles of forest and brush and drove 1,600 people from their homes. The problem continued throughout June and the first half of July, with an average of

50 fires burning each week. But then the situation worsened dramatically during a 24-hour period beginning on July 19, when lightning started some 58 new fires, most of them in northern Manitoba.

At Cross Lake, a community of 3,600 people and mainly wooden buildings, 600 km north of Winnipeg, officials closed the airport because of the smoke. With the fire threatening the only access road into the community, band and provincial officials mounted a massive evacuation effort on July 20. About 3,600 residents were ¿ taken by bus on the threeà hour, 150-km trip north to g Thompson or to some of the

1 other nearby towns and vil-

2 lages. By week’s end, the I firefighters’ efforts had § paid off. Cross Lake escaped u destruction and most of the g residents returned home, 1 although smoke from nearby fires still hung in the air.

In Thompson, many of the mining town’s 15,000 residents pitched in to help the stranded evacuees. The outsiders were billeted with friends and relatives or given shelter in vacant apartment houses and community centres— including the city’s recreation complex. There, hundreds slept on gym mats or foam mattresses spread on a concrete floor. Some evacuees, surrounded by the few belongings they had managed to stuff into suitcases and canvas bags before fleeing their homes, watched their restless children chase each other in a constant game of tag.

When fast-moving fires and heavy smoke closed in around the community of Snow Lake, 150 km southwest of Thompson, on July 21, officials tried to evacuate most of the 1,700 residents by airplane. But the heavy smoke prevented the planes from landing. At dawn the next morning, officials tried again—with helicopters because of their greater manoeuvrability. That airlift was successful, and the residents were flown to the safety of an emergency shelter in nearby Flin Flon.

At times, the smoke became almost as threatening as the flames themselves. Native leaders, provincial officials and medical teams received hundreds of reports of people, especially children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory ailments, experiencing breathing problems. For much of last week, even Thompson, where thousands of evacuees were gathered, was covered by a low-lying cloud of rusty-grey smoke that reduced visibility enough for officials to close the airport intermittently between July 21 and July 25. For his part, provincial Northern Affairs Minister James Downey, who toured the area on three separate occasions, said that it was a frightening spectacle. “It was unbelievable to see those

massive clouds of smoke,” Downey said.

But in spite of the smoke and the everpresent danger of shifting fires, some northern residents were critical of the evacuation efforts. “No one should tell me when to come, when to go,” said Nelson Scribe, a 64-year-old Cree trapper and fisherman evacuated to Thompson from his home at Norway House, 200 km to the south.

As light rains last week helped firefighters bring some blazes under control, Manitoba forestry officials estimated that about 7,000 square miles of provincial forests have been destroyed so far this year—over 1,800 square miles more than were destroyed by fires last year in the entire country and five times Manitoba’s annual average. For his part, William Medd, superintendent of the fire program for the provincial natural resources ministry, noted that the relative drought conditions of recent years were at the heart of the problem. “It went on all last summer, with considerably less precipitation this winter and spring, and it has carried right on this summer,” Medd said. He added that the drought has even affected bog and wetland areas, which normally act as firebreaks. “They’re so dry that fires just whistle across them,” Medd told Maclean’s. The result, according to Medd: “Nothing is sacred. Nothing is stopping these fires.”

But the devastation may be part of a troubling trend. Statistics from the National Forestry Institute in Petawawa, Ont., show that over the past 30 years forest fire outbreaks across Canada have increased to an average of 9,000 a year from 6,000. And some scientists and experts speculate that there may be a direct connection between that increase and global climatic changes. Said Dennis Dubé, the federal government’s chief forest-fire co-ordinator: “We’re starting to get the hint that something’s going on out there.”

Climatic specialist Kenneth Hare also said that the fires and high temperatures experienced this summer have again drawn attention to the so-called greenhouse effect—which experts say could raise the earth’s temperature by as much as four degrees within 50 years because of a buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Hare, chairman of the Climate Program Planning Board, which advises the government on how to cope with change in the climate, told Maclean’s, “There is substantial evidence that the greenhouse effect is already in progress.”

For one thing, the five hottest years on record have all occurred in the 1980s. As well, the largest forest fire ever reported, the socalled Black Dragon fire, which destroyed about a third of China’s forest land, occurred in 1987. There may have been an even bigger fire across the border in the Soviet Union at the same time, but few details have become available. And Hare said that the effects of several hot, dry summers could “snowball.” In that event, he said, “you will see even more forest fires.” That prospect offered little cheer to Manitoba’s weary firefighters and evacuees.

GREG W. TAYLOR with JOHN HOWSE in Thompson and DOUG NIXON in Ottawa

JOHN HOWSE

DOUG NIXON