Forest Fire Alert Post Hurricane Fiona

By Dr. Adam Fenech, University of Prince Edward Island

I do not need to tell you about Hurricane Fiona from last September, the large, powerful, and destructive Atlantic hurricane that was the most intense post-tropical cyclone to hit Canada on record. Fiona was a Category 4 hurricane, where our climate station network across Prince Edward Island measured wind speeds of up to 169.9 km/h at East Point during Fiona’s wrath. Fiona brought damage with thousands of fallen trees unprecedented during our lifetime. Officials from the Government of Prince Edward Island say they will ramp up post-Fiona cleaning efforts this Spring, six months after the destructive post-tropical storm hit the Island, but experts warn that addressing the damage to our forests caused by the storm might take many more years.

My concern lies with the amount of dead trees and branches laying across Prince Edward Island that have not been cleaned up coming off a particularly dry Winter and two months of Spring. Our climate normal for precipitation for the months of December, January and February (our Winter) is 302 millimetres (mm) of rain and snow, but only 165 mm, or 55 percent of our normal, fell during the Winter of 2023. This is similar for the months of March (32 percent drier) and April (65 percent drier) which were both drier than normal. I am calling for an alert because if we do not have a wet Summer, we may be sitting on a tinderbox ready to burn.

The Climate Lab at the University of Prince Edward Island has examined forest fires as a potential hazard under climate change. Our results show that when the Forest Fire Weather Index (FWI) was in the “extreme” and “high” danger classes doubled over the past 60 years (1961 to 2021) from 7 to 14 days per year, and is expected to increase another 7 days per year over the next 60 years.

Forest fires can be catastrophic to Prince Edward Island. Lennox Island and surrounding areas of Prince Edward Island were devastated by forest fires that burned in the late summer of 1960. Over 1,000 fire fighters fought long and hard to contain the damage but the loss of houses, barns and property was inevitable. Newspapers at the time considered it the largest fire‐fighting effort in Island history with even the people of Charlottetown being affected by the immense clouds of smoke.

Forestry officials at the province are concerned that debris from post-tropical storm Fiona has created conditions that could lead to more forest fires. Prince Edward Island has not dealt with any major forest fires for some time but consistently responds to smaller fires that have the potential to spread rapidly. Almost three years ago, with no substantial rain during the months of July and August, and the Fire Weather Index listed as “extreme” for the region, a field fire along North Freetown Road broke out. It was extinguished before it could take hold at the treeline.

So as we continue to clean up the trees and branches damaged by Fiona, take special care to ensure that they do not become fuel for a larger forest fire. And watch the skies while praying for rain.