Among the unprecedented climate impacts of this past summer were wildfires in remote Northwestern Ontario that burned more hectares of the province in 2021 than in any other year on record.
“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,” reports CBC News. “All but 13,000 hectares of land burned in the 2021 season were in the northwest.”
The fires forced partial or full evacuations of several remote Ontario First Nations (Poplar Hill, Deer Lake, Keewaywin, Cat Lake, North Spirit Lake, Koocheching, and Wabaseemong) displacing more than 3,000 people. While nearby cities were able to take in some of the evacuees, many evacuees were sent hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. In some cases, they were “limited to a single suitcase to bring for their stay,” says CBC.
After weeks of demands that he make an appearance in the community, Ontario Premier Doug Ford met with evacuees and Indigenous leaders in Thunder Bay in late July. He was presented with an 80-page report outlining a First Nations-specific emergency management concept developed by Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 communities across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 areas in the northwestern part of the province.
Experts say the fire season was so intense because of unusually dry conditions. Weather stations in Ontario’s western areas reported only 60% of the 270 to 300 millimitres of rain typically recorded in May, June, and July.
“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,” said provincial fire information officer Chris Marchand.
Dry conditions reached their peak in July, with some days logging more than 100 active fires and more than 80 new fires confirmed in a single day. The provincial government responded by banning outdoor burning and imposing restrictions on certain industrial activities. Nearly 500 firefighting personnel were brought in to supplement regional forces.
Jian Wang, a natural resources management professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, said policy-makers must move proactively to limit future fires by “managing the fuel.” Some strategies of fuel management include clearing swaths around communities—called “safety belts”—and Indigenous cultural burning. But Wang emphasized that those strategies need to take place in advance.
“You spend lots of money trying to stop the fire,” he said. “That’s too late.”