RAIN over much of the province did little to dampen the forest fire threat in southern Manitoba, a government official said Monday. Tom Mirus, Manitoba Conservation supervisor of field services, said scattered showers and cooler temperatures only delayed the spread of the largest fire burning in the southeast corner of the province -- it did nothing to put it out.
"They had a sprinkle of rain and that was it," he said at a media briefing. "It's keeping us pretty busy." What cloudy skies did give firefighters was a chance to get the upper hand on the blaze -- it's burned 3,800 hectares so far -- before sun and wind return to the forecast for the rest of the week.
On the plus side, there were no new fire starts reported Monday. Mirus said the province's biggest forest fire started as three separate ones in the Vassar area over the weekend, but quickly spread to burn as one. The fire is spreading north from an area near the town of Vassar toward the tiny hamlet of Badger, although about six kilometres still separate the community from the flames.
"We don't feel (Badger) is threatened at this time," Mirus said, adding firefighters are doing their best to protect the few homes and cottages in the area. As of Monday only people bothered by smoke had left the area. The cause of the fires remains under investigation. Four investigators are on the scene trying to trace who was responsible. A conviction for deliberately setting a fire carries a maximum fine of $10,000.
Mirus also said conditions are still tinder dry and ripe for more fires as there has been little precipitation since the snow melt. Spring-time foliage has yet to bud, meaning there is little shade or greenery to slow the spread of fire through grass, deadfall and garbage. Open fires are prohibited until Nov. 15 unless a burning permit is obtained and only approved fire pits are used, such as campfire grates in provincial campsites.
Mirus also said that of 35 fire grass and forest fires reported so far this year, all were caused by people. The biggest culprits are ATVs running through the forest and hot mufflers igniting dry grass. "Often they don't know they're started a fire," Mirus said of ATV riders. "It's major headache for us." Mirus said the fight against the Vassar fire has so far cost $250,000. Eleven water bombers, four helicopters, nine bulldozers and scores of firefighters are trying to put it out.
On Saturday, community members and fire crews fought a smaller blaze with water bombers and water tank trucks, in a desperate effort to stop the fire from spreading to backyards and towards their homes. Some residents of the town lost sheds and fences to the blaze, about 135 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg in the Rural Municipality of Piney. The blaze moved north, away from town, but then merged with two other small fires to produce the province's worst forest fire of 2007.
To put it into perspective, last year 35 fires had also been reported by this time, but only 174 hectares had been burned. To date, all fires in Manitoba this spring have burned 4,300 hectares.
From the Winnipeg Free Press