“Not a small season” for forest fires

Several risk factors already allow the Society for the Protection of Forests against Fire (SOPFEU) to be on guard for the coming summer.

“It’s difficult to predict, but we know that we start the season with a humidity deficit due to the lack of snow. Meteorologists are also predicting a hotter summer,” indicates Stéphane Caron, communications coordinator at SOPFEU.

“We don’t think it’s going to be a short season,” he sums up, although nothing suggests a summer as intense as in 2023.

The Abitibi and Baie-James regions will be particularly monitored by SOPFEU this year.

The spokesperson also specifies that the weather conditions in Western Canada have nothing to do with those in Quebec, and that major fires in this part of the country in no way predict fires here.

Better prepared

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This year, 50 new forest firefighters were trained to join SOPFEU. (Alexis Aubin/AFP)

The historic fires of the summer of 2023 raised the alarm about “certain vulnerabilities” of SOPFEU, which was struggling to meet needs. The government has already increased the organization’s budgets accordingly, assures Mr. Caron.

“Starting this year, we hired 50 additional forest firefighters and next year, we will add 30 more. To that, we also add staff [logistique]», Explains the spokesperson.

In total, SOPFEU will increase its workforce by 32% over two years.

The strength of SOPFEU will grow exponentially in the years to come, it is added, since each hired forest firefighter will eventually be able to take up to five “regular” firefighters on call under their wing during major interventions.

“That was one of the challenges last year, because there were a lot of people who wanted to come and help us, but our capacity to support them was limited.”

Additional investments also made it possible to purchase more equipment and open a new base in Lebel-sur-Quévillon.

“It’s clear that we are more robust,” rejoices Stéphane Caron. He notes that the other Canadian provinces have also increased their resources since last summer, which reassures all the country’s teams.

2023, an “exceptional” summer

Last year, the conditions were “all aligned” for an extraordinary forest fire season, says Mr. Caron. The month of May had very little rain, the forests were dry and a lightning front ignited Quebec overnight.

“Researchers say it’s something that happens every 100 years.”

— Stéphane Caron

SOPFEU launched into the forest fire season without understanding the scale of what awaited it. Retired firefighters and ex-employees were called in as reinforcements, not to mention the endless days of regular employees.

“We are very proud of what we managed to accomplish, but we did it on a sort of adrenaline. Everyone gave their 110% without questioning,” recalls Stéphane Caron. If it had to be done again with the same resources, “we would lack energy,” confides the spokesperson.

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A forest fire in Lebel-sur-Quévillion, June 23, 2023. (Frederic Chouinard/SOPFEU)

According to scientists’ projections, “exceptional” summers with fires like this are likely to occur more and more often, due to climate change.

“More often, that doesn’t mean every year. That means perhaps 25 or 30 years old,” explains the spokesperson.

Strike mandate

Last week, SOPFEU workers adopted a strike mandate adopted by 99%. The collective agreement expired on January 1, 2023 and negotiations are stumbling over “monetary aspects and mobility”, summarizes Stéphane Caron.

However, a strike would not affect firefighting, assures the spokesperson. As SOPFEU is an essential service, firefighters will not refuse to put out fires.

“What is out of the fire is the maintenance, the things we make them do at their home base,” Mr. Caron gives as an example. Firefighters are responsible for maintaining buildings, keeping vehicles clean and cutting grass, for example. These tasks could be affected by a possible strike.

80% of fires preventable

Some fires are unavoidable, caused by lightning or the sun. But 80% of the fires that SOPFEU deals with are in fact caused by human negligence, insists Stéphane Caron. SOPFEU was “finally given a budget” to carry out a major prevention campaign, he adds.

First and foremost, cigarette butts are responsible for 80 forest fires per year. “I can’t believe that in 2024, we will still have to tell people not to throw their cigarette butts out of the car window or on the ground,” says the spokesperson.

>>>Cigarette butts cause around 80 forest fires each year in Quebec.>>>

Cigarette butts cause around 80 forest fires each year in Quebec. (Archives)

In second place, citizens who burn trash on their land and lose control of the blaze are responsible for approximately 75 fires each year. “For burning waste, composting is a very good solution.”

“Often people clean their land, start their fire, then continue to scrape a little further. When they turn around 15 minutes later, they realize that the field behind the house is on fire and that it is heading towards the forest.

— Stéphane Caron

Ultimately, around sixty fires are caused by poorly extinguished campfires. A bucket of water on the embers before going to bed can make a big difference, recalls Mr. Caron.

“A fire can be reborn from its ashes,” he says, recalling that last year, a poorly extinguished campfire caused a fire that burned the equivalent of the surface area of ​​the island of Montreal, in the Saguenay region.

These three situations are responsible for almost half of the fires that SOPFEU must extinguish each year.

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