Top ten weather stories for 2006: story seven

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7. Active and Lengthy Wildfire Season

The Canadian wildfire season began early, ended late and was extremely active. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in Winnipeg reported that the 2006 wildland fire season was above-average for both fire numbers and hectares consumed when compared to the recent 10- and 20-year averages. As of October 1, Canada recorded 9,482 fires (127 per cent of normal) - numbers not seen since the late 1980s. The area consumed amounted to 2,031,702.5 hectares (about 4 per cent more than average).

Out west, the wildland fire hazard worsened from May to mid-July, prompting Alberta to import fire crews in late June. In northern Alberta, the winter was the driest since 1889. It was exceptionally mild too. A flurry of wildfires in and around Fort McMurray engulfed the northern Alberta city in smoke. Experts advised those with respiratory conditions to stay indoors or leave. By July 24, the fire situation became explosive. The province was on pace for a record-breaking wildfire season. Despite continued hot and drying weather, the absence of lightning saved the province from a disastrous conflagration. By season's end, fires in Alberta numbered 1,861 eclipsing the record set in 1998 when 1,696 wildfires ignited.

In Manitoba, the wildfire situation was quite volatile for most of the summer. New fire starts were occurring almost as quickly as old ones were extinguished. Fire crews were re-deployed from the north, where rainfall was plentiful, to the south where record dryness continued unabated. Officials issued strict travel restrictions.

On June 26, a massive forest fire in northern Saskatchewan threatened the hamlets of Stony Rapids and Fond-du-Lac forcing the evacuation of nearly 700 people. The sky around the region was a smoky orange and burning pine needles drifted like snow on the towns. By July 4, more than 2,000 people north of La Ronge had been evacuated. Of special note, the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Stanley Mission, SK - the oldest church west of the Red River, dating back to before 1860 - was under a fire threat. Volunteers installed a sprinkler system to save the historic structure.

From July onwards, the bulk of the western wildfire threat was centred in British Columbia. Sporadic wet and dry lightning, high temperatures, low humidities, and unruly winds challenged fire crews. On Canada Day, dry, hot weather created a high-to-extreme fire risk over three quarters of the province. At Tumbler Ridge, about 150 km northeast of Prince George, 3,500 residents and 500 non-residents (oil and gas workers and tourists) were told to leave. On July 24, BC's Gulf Islands experienced their worst fire conditions in 20 years. A forest fire on Galiano Island forced 150 people - more than one tenth of the island's population - to flee their homes. The fires disrupted ferry traffic and shut down the all-important tourism business. At the end of August, a large fire in northern Washington threatened to cross the Canadian border into British Columbia. Early on September 3, the Tatoosh fire spread into the province consuming more than 1,000 hectares near the fringes of Manning Park. Thick smoke made it unsafe to put crews on the ground to fight blazes or launch aircraft to view them from the air.

By mid-September, wildfires were still going strong in British Columbia and Ontario. In fact, the second week of September was the second largest fire occurrence week of the wild fire season. In Ontario, a relatively quiet fire season erupted in early September creating concerns for several northwestern communities. Unprecedented bone-dry forest litter ignited nearly 300 fires, forcing 1,000 people out of their homes and into shelters and hotels near Thunder Bay. Windy weather fanned flames, making containment even more difficult. Residents remarked how strange it was to see the fall colours on fire. The raging fires sent thick clouds of acrid smoke over the eastern parts of Canada. The last time Ontario fire activity had been so active so late in the year was a quarter of a century ago.

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