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Manitoba Up in Smoke: Jackman-Atkinson

September 16, 2017 8:15 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman.ca

Manitoba Wildfire

Manitoba MLA Judy Klassen provided this image showing the evacuation of Wasagamack First Nation in northern Manitoba on Tuesday August 29, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Judy Klassen)

NEEPAWA, Man. — An unusually hot and dry season has farmers breathing a sigh of relief as they get their crops off the field and into the bins, some in record times. But as the last trucks leave the field and farmers stop to look around, many also have concerns. The conditions that have made harvest 2017 a breeze for many have also made for tinder-dry conditions.

For those no longer concerned about the rush of harvest, “We need rain,” seems to be the common refrain. It’s easy to see why. As I write this Tuesday morning, we are almost two weeks from the last rain. While some areas might have enjoyed isolated showers, we have to go back to the beginning of August to find anything resembling significant rainfall. It’s no surprise that heat, combined with drought, has made much of the province unusually dry. By the end of last week, five Westman municipalities had burning bans in place. They’re not the only ones concerned, on Sept 8, Manitoba Sustainable Development and the Office of the Fire Commissioner advised that hot, dry and windy conditions were continuing, resulting in elevated wildfire danger levels in many areas of the province.

Across the province, there have been more than 500 fires this season and at the end of last month, three northern communities needed to be evacuated because of fires. Active and extinguished fires in Manitoba have burned a total area of approximately 160,000 hectares this year.

Despite these conditions, some people have still decided that this is a good time to burn. Mixed among the dust from harvest and the smoke from fires burning elsewhere on the continent, I have recently seen smoke from burning crop residue and have heard of people burning brush. In situations like this, municipalities should be more proactive about implanting burning bans— they can be easily lifted once conditions change, for example, it cools down or rains.

In the province, fires are prohibited between April 1 and Nov. 15 without a permit or unless the fire is in an enclosed, approved fire pit. Regulations do provide for burning of small amounts of straw outside authorized periods, if the straw is immediately impeding field operations such as seeding or tillage. These straw accumulations can result from wind, rain or water, a broken bale, a windrow less than 100 feet long or from stopping equipment. But these areas must be small— no more than three windrows, bales or piles with a combined area of one acre, may be burned at one time.

While the province’s crop residue burning regulations have more to do with concerns over smoke, they do highlight the need for safe burning practices, including adequate fire-guarding and proper supervision. In all but a few cases, the province leaves it up to municipalities to impose burning bans.

I have heard that it can be hard to inform residents about municipal burn bans, but the fact remains that other municipalities, such as North Cypress-Langford, had no problem letting their residents know the day their restrictions were in place. For those municipalities without a reliable method of quickly informing residents, media outlets, including this one, will publish or air press releases for free, there are poster boards at stores and post office and most importantly, residents need to be obtaining permits before burning and if a ban is in place, no permit will be issued.

A burning ban won’t eliminate all risks, lightning will still strike, farm equipment will still catch fire and sparks from hot exhausts will still ignite dry vegetation, but it would help. Burn bans would have no impact on those already playing it safe, but could save a community from disaster.

The rain will come, as will the cold, and then, it will be safe, but for many of us who look out on a sea of brown grass and trees, we just don’t want to see it go up in smoke.