Harvesting trees downed by Hurricane Fiona would reduce the risk of forest fires spreading quickly or blazing out of control, particularly in eastern PEI where landscapes were hardest hit by the September storm. But finding a contractor to do the work will be a challenge for most woodlot owners who hold about 90 per cent of Island forests.

“There are some clients, I really can’t say when I’ll get to them,” said forester and contract harvester Dan Dupont of Montague. He has been in the business for more than 25 years. 

He estimates, based on rough numbers, if all the Island’s harvesting crews work at full capacity over the next year or so they might harvest 30 per cent of the demand. He suspects it wouldn’t make financial sense for crews from out of province to assist and they are likely occupied with post-Fiona clean-up on the mainland.

A low volume of snow over the winter increases the risk of fire spreading quickly through fallen trees.

“Snowpack will push trees to the ground over the winter,” Mr Dupont said. “When they hit the ground they’ll start to rot immediately rather than dry out.”

He says in some respects this is a positive; there will be a slightly longer period of time to harvest fallen trees before they rot and lose value.

Jim Prime, a meteorologist with Climate Change and Environment Canada, confirmed that January through April saw less precipitation than usual on PEI and certainly less snow. As of April 30, western PEI was experiencing a moderate drought and eastern PEI was abnormally dry.

As for a long range forecast, above average temperatures are expected from May through September, Mr Prime said. But the finer details in how that plays out along with humidity and precipitation will be significant factors contributing to forest fire risk. He said it is generally too soon to say what we’ll experience through the summer. Precipitation and humidity will be major factors along with fuel loads which may reduce fire risks.

Alongside private contractors, workers with the forest and wildlife division of the Department of Environment and Climate Change will be busy this summer.

Mike Montigny is the manager of field services for the division and FireSmart Canada’s Prince Edward Island liaison.

He says he would absolutely hire more people with qualifications to contribute to tree clearing and harvesting work in the province if they applied.

The division is actively working to assess the most efficient and strategic way to reduce forest fire risk with the resources available, all with public safety as the main priority.

“If you drive across the Island, you can see as you get down to eastern Queens County into the southeast Kings, and then if you look at the north shore from St Peter’s east, there’s significant changes in landscape,” he said.

“Those are areas where we’re trying to work with communities and local fire departments to help educate and get ahead of fires.”

Woodlot owners can access some technical and financial support to hire a contractor through the province’s forest enhancement program. 

Public can help

In addition to woodlot management there are actions every member of the public can take to avoid forest fires, Mr Montigny said. 

Following careful safety precautions when lighting and tending fires outdoors and heeding any outdoor fire restrictions are key.

As the most densely populated province in the country, it is relatively likely an out of control forest fire would threaten the safety of people and their property. Property owners can take a number of actions to prevent their house from catching in the event of a fire such as trimming grass regularly, piling firewood at least 10 metres from a house and storing combustibles at least 1.5 metres away from any houses or decks. More information can be found on FireSmart Canada’s webpage.

Fires in the province are rarely if ever considered part of the Island’s forests’ natural life cycle, according to Mr Montigny. They are almost always caused by people. Considering the Island is so densely populated, protecting public safety will typically result in preventing significant habitat loss and conserving Island forests.

The Climate Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island has examined forest fires as a potential hazard under climate change. Results show that seeing the Forest Fire Weather Index (FWI) in the ‘extreme’ and ‘high’ danger classes has become twice as common over the past 60 years, from seven to 14 days per year.

It is expected to increase an additional seven days per year over the next 60 years.

Mr Montigny says the department is always evaluating staff and equipment needs.

“So we’re constantly looking at our own staff and as new staff come on, we’re training them and getting more capacity into this industry.”

Mr Montigny couldn’t say if there are more wildfire fighting staff employed now compared to the past or if the budget would be available if he were to present a need for more paid firefighters.

The province plans to rely more heavily on volunteer firefighters by providing more training and education on wildland fires.

The government has begun to replace all five wildland fire trucks and one of two tracked machines but has not indicated plans to increase its fleet of equipment.

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 01, 2023 at 14:06

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eastern Graphic   Montague, Prince Edward Island
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