Forest fires | SOPFEU on the lookout earlier than ever

(Quebec) The respite promises to be brief for forest firefighters: the early melting of snow is forcing SOPFEU to issue a fire risk bulletin this week, a record for the organization. This precipitation deficit raises fears of another “major fire season”.

What there is to know

SOPFEU released a fire risk bulletin for the Montérégie, Estrie and Centre-du-Québec regions on March 7, a record.

After historic fires in 2023, low precipitation this winter leaves our forests vulnerable to another “significant fire season.”

Environment Canada is forecasting a warm spring, which won’t improve things, warns a meteorologist.

“I’ve never seen that,” says Stéphane Caron, communications manager at the Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire (SOPFEU).

“Generally, we open the first weather stations in the first week of April, for Montérégie and Estrie. This year, not only are we starting to calculate the fire danger in these two regions, but we are also doing it for the Centre-du-Québec region. The map should therefore be online on our website (this Thursday) morning,” he adds.

Opening date of SOPFEU weather stations during early spring

1995: April 12

2000: April 18

2002: 1er april

2006: April 11

2009: April 11

2010: March 30

2012: March 18

2016: March 13

2021: March 19

2024: March 5

Source: SOPFEU

Since 2003, the earliest opening of SOPFEU weather stations took place in mid-March, in 2016. But “never as early as this year”. “That’s what climate change is,” says Stéphane Caron.

Lack of snow

The situation is explained by a mild winter, but above all by the lack of snow, which was not only felt on the ski slopes and in the snow sports centers. The snow cover has therefore melted or will melt very quickly in the forest.

In southern Quebec, the risk of fire should not be taken lightly, because in spring, the vegetation is “dry and dead”. “Another impact of the precipitation deficit this winter is that the soil will be less waterlogged when it melts and will be drier,” says Mr. Caron. What poses the most danger for fires: people burning trash, like piles of leaves, in their backyard, for example.

Mr. Caron also points out that the northwest of the province, in Abitibi and Nord-du-Québec, hit hard by historic forest fires in 2023, did not have much snow.

We were already carrying a deficit of precipitation from last year, and there was even less water than usual. And it’s cumulative. We started the winter with drier soil, there is less snow, and we will have a significant deficit in the spring.

Stéphane Caron, communications manager at SOPFEU

The consequence: “We have signals that show that we are heading towards a major fire season. » This could, however, be offset by heavy rain in April or May, adds Mr. Caron. In 2010, Quebec already experienced an early forest fire season. The earliest fire was recorded there, on March 11.

Heat records

Meteorologist at Environment Canada, Simon Legault also points out that the winter was very dry in southern Quebec. “In Estrie, for example, there was 8 mm of precipitation in February. Normal is 56mm. In January, there was 44 mm, while the normal is 73 mm. Snow stores water during the winter and melts when vegetation needs it as it grows. If the snow is no longer there at that time, it will further dry out the ground and has the potential to generate more forest fires,” he explains.

This is without counting the heat records that have been shattered recently, underlines meteorologist Gilles Brien, who speaks of “the mildest spring break ever seen in Quebec”. And the situation could continue: he points to Environment Canada’s seasonal overview, which predicts temperatures above normal for the last 30 years for the months of March, April and May. “The conditions are likely to resemble last year,” he warns.

“Matagami (in the administrative region of Nord-du-Québec) is in a sector which well represents the regions of the northern forest severely affected by fires last year. In January and February 2023, the total precipitation for the two months reached 30 mm. And this year, it’s 32mm. Far from the normal 80mm for both months. In short, same thing as last year,” underlines the meteorologist.

The historic fires of 2023, which ravaged 1.1 million hectares of forest, an area three times larger than the last record, pushed the Quebec government to change its practices.

Last November, the Minister of Public Security François Bonnardel tabled a bill creating an “emergency intervention reserve” to support the authorities, notably SOPFEU, in the event of a natural disaster. The government must specify, in its budget presented next week, the sums it plans to inject into this strike force.

Learn more

  • 11
    Number of forest fires that burned in March 2010 in Quebec. In April of that year, 107 fires raged. SOPFEU believes that the record for the earliest forest fire could be broken this year.

    source: SOPFEU


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