One of the many forest fires burning in Ontario this year. The group Almaguin Climate Action is critical of MNRF Minister Graydon Smith for saying in the Legislature that there is nothing unusual about the current forest fire season. MNRF photo MNRF photo

A member of two area climate change groups says she’s disappointed that Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry  Graydon Smith won’t take back comments he made in the Legislature over forest fires.

Christine Lauffer is a resident of Burk’s Falls and a member of Almaguin Climate Action and Climate Action Muskoka. Lauffer recently sent an Open Letter to Smith, who also represents her as the MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, criticizing his comments in early June that forest fires are nothing new and there is nothing unusual about the current forest fire season.

In her letter, Lauffer says there are “more forest fires than ever, they are stronger, longer, out of control and much more serious” and she wanted Smith to acknowledge that “the fires we are experiencing right now are so severe because of the climate change crisis.”

The Nugget talked to both Lauffer and Smith.

Smith immediately said “climate change is real and is happening.” But he also said even though the number of forest fires and the hectares they have burned are “slightly above average” this year, he added this past spring has not been “an unprecedented year” for forest fires in Ontario.

Smith says the impact climate change has on forest fires has to be examined over the long term and not the short term because “there is a huge amount of variability in forest fires in Ontario from one year to the next.”

As an example, Smith said last year was a light forest fire season with the number well below the 10-year average. Smith says Ontario experienced a dry spring this year with only a light amount of precipitation and that “led to the ability for more forest fires to start primarily through lightning strikes and some human caused.”

During the interview with the Nugget, Smith again emphasized the need to look at the impact of climate change on forest fires over a longer span.

He said we should “not take data from (only) one point in time” and conclude there is a “direct causal relationship” between this year’s forest fires and climate change and then further add this is an unprecedented season, which he again said it is not.

Although Smith acknowledges climate change is real, “climate change itself is not going to start a forest fire,” he said.

He says forest fires are caused naturally by a high number of lightning strikes and by people who are careless with a campfire or cigarette butt or even a spark coming off an ATV’s brake pad being driven in the woods.

“Climate change may over the long term have some impacts on the number or severity of forest fires, but I leave that to the scientists to determine over the long term with lots of data on how that plays out,” he said.

Smith said there are always going to be thunderstorms that contain lightning and given that much of Ontario has boreal forests, when “lightning strikes at the wrong place, we’re going to have a fire.”

“We’re never going to eliminate forest fires in Ontario,” the minister said. “They are an annual occurrence and part of nature.”

Smith encourages the public to visit the MNRF website to learn more about forest fires and read how the public can become ‘fire smart’ to help mitigate the number of forest fires.

Smith also took a shot at other groups and people who claim the MNRF has cut its forest firefighting budget. He finds this “extremely aggravating” and not accurate. Smith said while there is a set budget, the MNRF will spend whatever it takes in any season to fight forest fires.

He said when a heavy firefighting season is followed by a light season and not as much money gets spent, some purposely distort the data and say the ministry spent less money and therefore cut the budget.

“This is just not true and I think it’s an intentional distortion,” he said. “The reality is if we need to spend $100 million, $200 million or $250 million on a season fighting forest fires, we’re going to spend that much money”.

When speaking to the Nugget, Christine Lauffer agreed with the MNRF minister that there are both light and heavy forest fire seasons. But she added over time, the number of light forest fire seasons is shrinking. Lauffer said the data indicates forest fires are starting earlier almost every year.

“They burn longer, are often out of control for weeks and they come more frequently,” she said. “We have higher temperatures, drier air, more hot wind and these are all signs of the climate crisis.”

Lauffer said while climate change itself is not the cause for forest fires, “it creates the circumstances for the wildfires to be more furious.”

On the point that people should not draw conclusions by looking at forest fire seasons as annual stand-alone events, Lauffer agreed with Smith but added data shows for the most part each year forest fires are worsening.

“So the overall curve is rising,” Lauffer said.

She also said the global temperature has risen about 1.5 C and while “that sounds ridiculously low, that has huge impacts.”

Lauffer said she’s relieved for those years when there are fewer forest fires thanks to positive weather patterns but repeated the claim that the forest fire curve is rising. She said reversing this trend involves things like ending our reliance on fossil fuels and spending research and development money on alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

Lauffer said people now employed in the oil and gas sector can be retrained and “no one needs to be left behind.” She added if Smith agrees that climate change is real, then he should act on it now.

Smith said the Ontario government has been taking action on climate change. He said earlier this year the Ford government passed legislation that allows for the capture of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, then compressing them into a liquid and finally burying them deep underground, which prevents them from being released into the atmosphere.

As of July 24, the MNRF website indicates the number of Ontario forest fires this year is above the 10-year average. While the 10-year average to date is 423 forest fires, Ontario has seen 459 forest fires so far this season compared to 150 forest fires during 2022 for the same period.

Also since 2000, Ontario has had an average of 948 forest fires a year that burned about 60,390 hectares a year. The year with the most forest fires was 2006, when 2,300 forest fires were recorded, while the slowest season was 2022 with 268 forest fires. During 2021 there were 1,197 forest fires across Ontario, which burned a record number of hectares at 793,325, since 2000.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative