'Be vigilant': Northwestern Ontario municipalities prepare for wildfire season

The 2024 fire season officially begins on April 1

As a warm winter with little precipitation gives way to a dry spring, municipalities in northwestern Ontario are getting ready for a potentially intense wildfire season.

Preparations for the season — which begins in less than two weeks — are underway in Red Lake, a municipality in the western reaches of the province that has faced several environmental challenges, including a full evacuation due to a wildfire in recent years.

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"I had a discussion with the MNRF (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) in our local jurisdiction, and they reported the same as my gut feelings, that our precipitation areas are lower than expected, which heightens our awareness of course for the fire season that is upon us," Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota said.

"I know they brought some crews back early this year to start preparations at the beginning of March, and I know there'll be more crews coming in the near future."

The fire season officially begins on April 1. Mota said there's "some general anxiety for a lot of our population, and of course for myself and council, in regards to having those preparations done."

CBC: While Fort Albany evacuates, there are also concerns that the wildfire burning less than 2 km away could also disrupt the hydro line that brings electricity to the community, as well as Kashechewan and Attawapiskat. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry )

File photo. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry via CBC)

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"I'm hopeful that the MNRF will be hiring lots of crews. I know there's been shortages of crews, and especially crew leaders, to take on new MNRF firefighters, so that's also a concern for me as well."

The municipality has faced very difficult wildfire seasons over the past few years.

In 2020, the municipality was evacuated due to a wildfire "with less than 30 minutes' notice," Mota said, adding "the year after, we had forest fires fringing on the outskirts of our municipality and we were on high alert."

"It seems like every year with climate change we've had some very challenging times in our municipality, and for our large industry partners and our residents and everybody surrounding us," Mota said. "I'm hopeful that we'll have things under control."

Sign up for emergency alerts, pack go-bag

To that end, preparations for the 2024 season are underway, Mota said.

"We want to ensure that everyone is signed up to our emergency alert system that we created during our first evacuation, so people would get an alert on their cellphones," Mota said. "We encourage the elderly to sign up with our municipality so we can go door knocking for those elderly residents that are not on those telecommunication devices."

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"The other thing is having people aware of maybe having a small bag of clothes packed in case we have to evacuate at the drop of a dime," he said. "We'll be having those discussions with our residents, will be making people prepared, but we also have to ensure that our residents in our surrounding area sign up for those emergency alert systems so they can get the information that's needed."

Wildfire/Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Provided via CBC

Northwestern Ontario municipalities are preparing for what could be a very intense 2024 wildfire season. The season officially begins on April 1. (Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Provided)

To the southeast, a similar situation is unfolding in Sioux Lookout as the fire season approaches.

"It's going to be a very bad season in terms of fire without a significant amount of precipitation in the near future, which doesn't look to be in the forecast," Mayor Doug Lawrance said. "It's a dry winter, and a dry spring coming, so an early start to the fire year, and probably a very early restricted fires zone this year."

Lawrance said the municipality's fire department will be "extra vigilant" when it comes to responding to reports of smoke or fires in the Sioux Lookout area.

"The bylaw department will continue to be vigilant through enforcement of all aspects of open air burning bylaws while they work with the MNRF to enforce that, if there is, as we expect, a restricted fire zone."

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"So it's a matter of planning, vigilance, knowing that it's coming, and working closely with them," he said. "The message would be that, 'look, it's very dry out there. It's dangerous. Be vigilant, report smoke and fires and be careful.'"

Alison Bezubiak, fire information office with the MNRF's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES), told CBC News in an email that recruitment and training is underway for the upcoming fire season, and in some areas crews are being brought on early as a precaution.

"As we head toward the end of March, conditions vary significantly around the Northwest Region in terms of snow cover," Bezubiak stated. "Some areas are seeing snow free conditions which can create the potential for early spring fires."

WATCH: Canada's unprecedented 2023 wildfires had a global impact

Thumbnail courtesy of Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry/Provided via CBC.

The story was originally written by Kris Ketonen and published for CBC News.