Wildfires that forced evacuations of a number of remote northwestern Ontario First Nations burned more hectares of land in the province in 2021 than in any other year in history, surpassing the record set 26 years ago.
More than 3,000 people were temporarily displaced in summer-long evacuation efforts during the 2021 forest fire season in Ontario, particularly in the northwestern region of the province, according to recently released information from Ontario’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES).
Across Ontario, more than 793,000 hectares of land were burned — a span larger than the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and surpassing the previous record by 80,000 hectares that had been set in 1995. All but 13,000 hectares of land burned in the 2021 season were in the northwest, the AFFES said in late October.
Two fires — both now the largest on record in Ontario — were responsible for a significant portion of the land area affected. The Kenora 51 fire topped 200,000 hectares, and alone exceeded the average annual amount of burned land in the entire province over the last decade.
Chris Marchand, a provincial fire information officer, said weather stations in western areas of the region, close to the Manitoba border, typically receive between 270 and 300 millimetres of rain during May, June and July.
But during those three months in 2021, about 60 per cent of weather stations near the Manitoba border recorded less than half of those expected rainfall amounts, with several others receiving less than 100 millimetres.
“It created drought-like conditions that made those fires grow large, become very stubborn to put out and when paired with high winds, moved quite quickly,” he said.
Thousands forced from their homes
Several First Nations — Poplar Hill, Deer Lake, Pikangikum, Keewaywin, Cat Lake, North Spirit Lake, Koocheching and Wabaseemong — were either partially or fully evacuated either due to the threat of fire or because of thick smoke.
While some municipalities in the northwest, including Thunder Bay, Kenora and Sioux Lookout, were able to take in evacuees, hundreds of people were instead sent to more far flung destinations that in some cases were thousands of kilometres away.
Community members from Deer Lake, a remote community in the far northwestern corner of the province, were flown to the far east part of Ontario in Cornwall, limited to a single suitcase to bring for their stay. Other cities like Sudbury, London and the GTA became host communities.
Premier Doug Ford visited Thunder Bay in late July to meet with evacuees and Indigenous leaders, after weeks of demands to appear in the community. He was presented with an 80-page report from Nishnawbe Aski Nation outlining a First Nations-specific emergency management concept.
One year after a rushed evacuation, the town of Red Lake again spent another summer dealing with the threat of wildfires. Several large fires burned nearby, causing blanketing smoke when winds blew toward the mining town. Some residents proactively left the town, but those who remained behind spent weeks preparing for a potential evacuation.
Some patients at the Margaret Cochenour Memorial Hospital in Red Lake were transferred to facilities elsewhere in the region as a pre-emptive step in case a broader evacuation was required.
Crews spent weeks building fire breaks and setting up sprinklers to protect property and infrastructure in the case of approaching fires.
July a particularly dry month
The tinder-dry conditions were at their peak in mid-July, when some days saw more than 100 active fires burning across northwestern Ontario. On July 20, a single-day total of 80 new fires were confirmed across the region.
To help in the firefighting efforts in northwestern Ontario, in some areas, provincial bans were put in place on outdoor burning, including campfires, from the end of June until the beginning of September. As well, an order restricting certain industrial activity lasted nearly a month, until mid-August, to try to prevent human-caused fires.
The province also brought in nearly 500 firefighting personnel from outside Ontario, including from parts of Canada and Australia, Mexico and the United States.
While many provinces sent reinforcements, others were in the middle of battling their own fires.
“Our neighbouring provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan were each facing very serious wildfire situations of their own,” Marchand said. “Definitely a big year, not just in Ontario and the northwest, but those other boreal sections of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.”
‘Manage the fuel’
While the Ontario fires resulted in scorched landscapes, the province avoided the destruction seen in other places across Canada.
This summer, with British Columbia under a heat dome that resulted in the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Canada, the village of Lytton was largely destroyed by a ferocious wildfire in late June.
Five years earlier, Fort McMurray, Alta., was the scene of destruction after a fast-moving wildfire swept through the city and cost millions of dollars in damage.
Jian Wang, a professor in the faculty of natural resources management at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, paid close attention to this year’s fire season in the northwest.
Wang said one of the easiest ways to control wildfires and protect places where people live is to manage the fuel.
“If you can have a one- or two-kilometre belt — that’s called a safety belt — you can really manage that,” he said, proposing communities cut an area immediately surrounding their boundary.
Wang said Indigenous cultural burns have also been identified as a way to help manage fuel that could threaten communities.
He encourages policymakers to consider how to address fire risk before there are flames.
“You spend lots of money trying to stop the fire. That’s too late.”