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Attacking out of control forest fires

Fighting the fire from above
Fighting the fire from above

Lisa Varano, staff writer

June 26, 2011 — When the weather changes, so does the way forest fires are fought.

Wall of flames in Pickle Lake area
Wall of flames in Pickle Lake area

A couple of rainy days won't be enough to extinguish an out of control forest fire that has forced hundreds of people from home in far northwestern Ontario.

But the rain could help firefighters attack it.

“Today is probably one of the first days that we've been able to actually look at getting people in on the fire line,” Barry Graham, a fire behaviour analyst, told The Weather Network on Sunday.

Graham is stationed at the Pickle Lake Attack Base, near a forest fire that grew to 58,000 hectares on the weekend.

Because the fire has been so active, fire crews have been limited to aerial attacks and other measures.

Now, a change in the weather may allow a new approach.

“Rain is obviously beneficial in slowing down the rate of spread of the fire and reducing the fire behaviour, so that it's safe to put ground crews in along the fire line,” said Graham.

Fire was within a few kilometres of the Mishkeegogamang First Nation on Sunday, where smoke forced 400 people to evacuate last week.

Although the fire has been burning since June 1, it only recently became a problem. Wind caused the fire to grow quickly, and pushed it near the Pickle Lake area.

Dayna Vettese, a meteorologist at The Weather Network, says up to 30 mm of rain could fall in the Pickle Lake area through Tuesday morning.

Parts of northwestern Ontario were under an Environment Canada rainfall warning on Sunday, which mentioned the risk of thunderstorms. Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources says lightning strikes could start forest fires in the region.

Temperatures are dropping from Saturday, when Pickle Lake was the hottest spot in Canada at 28.6°C.

The forest fire danger was rated high to extreme across far northwestern Ontario.

It could be some time before evacuees are allowed to return home.

“The last thing we want to do is jump the gun,” said Dave Jackson, an Ontario fire information officer.

“If a little bit of rain comes through, or maybe the smoke moves off, we don't want folks to go back too soon because things are so dry here right now. Even like 20 mm of rain, 30 mm of rain -- that will dry out within a day or two.”

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