Daily Archives: May 31, 2010

Where there’s smoke

Sunrise over Ottawa River

There was a lovely sunrise this morning, one of those that are nicely accented by clouds, with the rays cutting through the thin water vapour at the edges to be visible. After the nets were opened I grabbed my camera and wandered to the water’s edge to take a photo.

An hour later, as we stepped out of the banding lab to start a check of the nets, we could smell smoke. It had a very woody scent, like a campfire or a wood stove at home. We couldn’t see anything, however, and I assumed it to be a house fire nearby, or perhaps the military was burning brush somewhere else on the base.

It did cross my mind, however, that the conditions today were perfect for a forest fire. Moderately strong winds of 20+ km/h (12+ mph) were blowing east across the water to us, and our lack of winter snow and spring rain, as well as the hot days we had last week, would result in a very dry landscape. All it would need would be a single spark to set off the initial flame, and the winds would have it fanned up and spreading quickly in no time.

Smoke from Quebec forest fires

Within an hour of when we first detected it, the smoke had begun to obscure the far shore of the Ottawa River. By an hour after that, we could no longer see the other side. Looking out on the water we could almost have been on one of the Great Lakes, with the water stretching to the horizon and disappearing before land was again reached.

Smoke from Quebec forest fires

Having no internet connection, but concerned about the proximity of the fire, the smoke of which was more and more beginning to resemble that of a forest fire, we turned to the radio. We flipped between channels, trying to find any updates, but few stations made mention of it. Finally, we caught one station that had called someone associated with a forest conservation NGO who indicated that some 52 fires were currently burning in southern Quebec, of which 8 of them were out of control, fanned on by the winds as I’d suspected.

Smoke from Quebec forest fires

The strong eastern winds of this morning pushed the smoke from southern Quebec into Ottawa and eastern Ontario. Though the largest fires, and the ones they’re blaming for today’s smoke, are burning some 350 km (218 mi) northeast of Ottawa, the smoke was still quite thick, and pushed on even farther. You could see it in the air when I got home to Perth this afternoon, an additional 85 km (53 mi) west of Ottawa. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all also received some of the smoke, apparently, with traces of it making it as far as Massachusetts. It would be interesting to get a satellite image of the area, showing the haze of smoke across the region.

Forest fires aren’t unusual in the boreal forest of northern Ontario or Quebec, but their frequency has definitely been reduced from natural rates, meaning that those that do happen are often harder to control. Still, forest fires themselves almost never affect populated areas of Ontario south of the Canadian Shield, and even the smoke rarely seems to reach anywhere where it’d have a large impact.

On the drive home, someone with Environment Canada was interviewed on the radio about forest fires here in the east. He indicated that we seem to flip-flop forest fire seasons with BC. In years where they have bad fires, we tend not to, and vice versa. The last two years have been BC’s seasons; this year looks to be ours. They’re blaming lightning strikes for the vast majority of the fires burning right now: some 9,000 strikes were recorded just last night; over the long weekend as a whole, 44,000 strikes were recorded. Most of these will hit trees or other grounding objects and won’t develop into anything, but some that hit dead wood or grassy areas or similar situations may end up triggering a fire.

Smoggy haze from smoke from Quebec forest fires

The smoke hangs so thick over the ground that from a distance it looks like the muddy haze of smog, a sight I’m familiar with from having lived and worked in Toronto, but which seems somewhat out of place in a setting such as this. Air quality advisories were issued to residents, though mostly the people affected were those with breathing difficulties to begin with.

They anticipated that shifting winds would clear the smoke out from the area by late today and things would return to normal in the Ottawa region. I doubt the fires will be extinguished nearly that quickly, however, and many thousands of hectares will burn. In discussing the impact of the fires with Dan this afternoon, he indicated that these days he gets excited when he hears about forest fires, for the same reason I do, though we came to it by different revelations: the new successional habitat that grows up in the burned-over landscapes is amazing for birds.

Prairie Warbler by Scott A. Young on Flickr; borrowed through Creative Commons licence

My perception of this was formed after spending a summer working in southeastern Ohio on a PhD student’s project examining clear-cut usage by birds. Both shrubland and forest birds would bring their youngsters into the regenerating clear-cuts after fledging from the nests. There were days there where we could catch more birds in four hours from just nine nets than we’ve caught in a single six-hour morning during spring migration at Innis running 24 nets. Birds loved those clear-cuts. It forever changed my opinion of the practice.

In Dan’s case, he’s observed in Frontenac Provincial Park populations of scrub and field species, including one of Ontario’s few remaining Prairie Warbler colonies, existing almost exclusively in scrubby, rocky habitat that was created as a result of a couple of fires that burned over the area several decades ago, exposing the topsoil to sufficient erosion that regeneration has been very slow.

It’s not all bad. Not by a long-shot.

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