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Forest fire season underway

Codroy Valley has seen significant influx in grass fires this season

Grass fire the Codroy Valley Volunteer Fire Department responded to on the morning of Apr. 11 in Cape Anguille – photo submitted by Brian Osmond

By Jaymie L. White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

SOUTHWEST COAST — Across the island portion of the province, May 1 marked the beginning of the 2023 forest fire season, which won’t come to an end until Sept. 30. The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture shared a set of reminders for the public for forest fire season which include:

  1. A Permit to Burn is required to burn grass, brush and other materials during Forest Fire Season, and strict conditions must be followed. The permit can be obtained from the local Forestry and Wildlife district office.

  2. When the fire hazard rating is high, very high, or extreme, all Permits to Burn for that region are suspended.

  3. When the fire hazard rating is very high or extreme, open or outdoor fires are not allowed in that region.

  4. A person may light an open or outdoor fire within 300 meters of forested land without a Permit to Burn during Forest Fire Season under certain conditions including:

  5. The fire is in a prepared site within a managed park with appropriate facilities, and equipment

  6. The fire is in an outdoor wood burning unit that contains the fire and is properly screened

  7. The fire is contained in an incinerator unit that is on private property, is in good working order, and is properly screened.

  8. All open fires must be attended at all times

  9. Always have sufficient water and other tools on site to extinguish a fire.

  10. Never leave the fire location until the fire has been completely extinguished.

  11. Anyone travelling through forest land on an all-terrain or motorized vehicle during forest fire season has to have a muffler and a screening or baffling device to prevent sparks and particles from escaping.

According to the Fire Hazard Map presented by the Dept. of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, Forest Fire Region 5, which contains the Southwest Coast, is currently under a high forest fire warning level. This warning level could help explain why the Codroy Valley has seen a significant increase in grass fires already this season. “We’ve had about, I’d say, 14 so far. It’s an over-abundance,” said Brian Osmond, Chief of the Codroy Valley Volunteer Fire Department (CVVFD). “I think last year we had four. This year we’re already at 14. I don’t know why.” Before one weekend fire got out of control, a water bomber had to be brought in to contain the blaze. “Yesterday (Apr. 30), there was a woods fire, and we don’t know how it started. I call them ‘mystery fires’,” said Osmond. “We had to use a water bomber yesterday because the area was inaccessible by us. The river was really high, so we couldn’t get over with any of our equipment. Neither could forestry, so the water bomber was brought in. Also, when the water bomber was putting out the fire where the forestry guys brought the bomber in for, we had three mysterious fires start on the railway bed going towards Doyles, and the wind was blowing the opposite way, so we can’t say it was sparks from the other fire because the wind was blowing the wrong way for that, but because we had those three fires started, they had to divert the water bomber to put those out before they got out of control. That’s why I call them mystery fires, because they appear out of nowhere.” The large number of grass fires puts a strain on the entire department. “It makes the volunteer firefighters lives miserable. We’ve probably had, in the 14 calls, over 24-30 hours of fighting fires,” said Osmond. “You look at the volunteers, regardless of where you are, it takes a toll on you, continuously fighting fires. It’s not just the personnel. At the end of the day, when we start our firetrucks, whether it’s for two hours or twelve hours, they don’t get turned off. Fighting fires is as bad as going down the highway at 80 or 90 kilometres an hour, and fuel costs alone are crazy, along with time away and personnel. It’s a financial burden on every fire department, regardless of if you’re funded by your municipality or not. It takes a toll on you, a toll on your equipment, just because someone or something lit something on fire and it got out of control.” The cause of some of the ‘mystery fires’ may not remain a mystery for much longer. “We have the RCMP involved doing investigations on some fires because some things were found, which I’ll keep quiet, but there is stuff that has been found at the scenes that have been turned in to the RCMP,” shared Osmond. The Port aux Basques Volunteer Fire Department (PABFD) had their own grass fire a few weeks ago that also resulted in the RCMP being called to the scene. “That fire call came in around 7:00 last Sunday (Apr. 23),” said Jerry Musseau, PABFD Fire Chief. “Someone was burning garbage or whatever they were burning there, and I would assume something must’ve got out of the burn drum and caught the grass on fire.” Luckily didn’t take the PABFD long to get it under control. “We had it out fairly quickly. By the time we took off the hoses, put the fire out and put the hoses back on, it was only 45 minutes or so probably,” shared Musseau. “If the grass kept continually burning further away, there were other houses in the area where the grass was burning, but it didn’t get up to that area because we had it out before it got to that point.” The RCMP were called to the scene by the PABFD. “In this case we had a little issue with the person who was burning there, so we thought, for the safety of our firefighters, in the middle of a confrontation there, we decided to call the RCMP.” In response to email inquiries, the RCMP offered the following: “At approximately 7:15 pm on April 23, 2023, Channel-Port aux Basques RCMP were called by the fire department to attend a property on Stadium Road. Firefighters on the scene were dealing with a grass fire and an uncooperative male on the property. When police arrived, the fire had been put out. No one was injured. No charges were laid as no crime was committed.” Due to the environmental conditions this time of year, an increase in grass fires is to be expected. “This is the time of the year, because the grass is really dry, and our weather, of course, has been extremely dry this season just the same. Grass is really dry, and just like gasoline, there is a great potential there for fires to spread really quickly in dry grass. Normally we don’t get a lot of grass fires in this area. It is mostly in the Codroy Valley,” said Musseau. “The heat isn’t extreme as of yet, but everything is dry, and if people are going to be burning fires or burning garbage and it’s not covered, the risk is there for a spark or ember to fly out and catch the grass on fire, because it wouldn’t take much, and of course, when you’ve got dry grass around, whether someone’s thrown a cigarette butt down or anything, the potential is there. On Saturday evening (Apr. 29) we had another small grass fire outside the old trail of the railway tracks and we’re not sure exactly what may have caused that one, but it was contained very quickly.” Having to respond to such a high number of grass fires is difficult enough, but when emergency responders are slowed down by individuals blocking access in order to rubberneck, it creates an even bigger problem. “It seems like whenever there’s a fire truck or a police car going to a scene, people tend to follow it. It’s a problem that we’ve talked about before. We’ve preached about it over the years, for people not to follow the fire trucks,” said Musseau. “That is a problem from time to time.” Rubberneckers create multiple problems during an event. “The first thing, if there are vehicles there observing before we’ve even gotten there, it may make it difficult to get our vehicles in there,” said Musseau. In one recent incident, a car accident on Regional Street in early April, proved that it’s not only first responders that can be hindered from helping. A cracked power pole that was left dangling by its wires required a NL Power crew to arrive and disconnect it. Because of the line up of cars alongside the road, the crew was obliged to park their truck and run to the pole to shut off the power so first responders could assist the driver. Luckily, in this case, the outcome was favourable. “That night, the rest of the power lines could have come down and futher injuries could’ve occurred,” said Musseau. “Also, the ambulance has to get in. The people who are injured have to get back out, so the more vehicles that are in that area, the more difficult it is to do our jobs quickly and safely. We don’t want those people in and around everything. When there is a house fire or an accident, whatever, stay away and let us do our job because people need help and we don’t need anything else besides the incident, people or anything else, hindering our operations.” Social media also presents a problem. “People could probably put photos on social media, and maybe even before some of the family members know that their loved ones and relatives have been involved in an incident,” said Musseau. “We have no control over that part, what people are putting on social media, but I wish they wouldn’t do that. I think it’s why a lot of people want to get in close to those incidents, to get those pictures and do that kind of stuff, but that’s not good. No one should be hindering operations.” The RCMP also issued a statement about onlookers. “It is not uncommon for on-lookers to be present and at times to be an interference or even a danger to those at the scene of a collision. Motorists passing through a collision scene need to pay special attention to first responders who are often out on foot at the scene of a collision, to travel with reduced speeds and to stay off of their cell phones. Driving while distracted puts others at risk. Blocking off a roadway can certainly interfere with the response time of first responders to a scene which can certainly put victims at a disadvantage of receiving the care needed.” “It is also not uncommon for people to take pictures when passing through a crash scene and to post them to social media. This no doubt can be painful for friends and family members and can often circulate over social media before a next of kin has been made aware of a crash involving a loved one.” Both fire chiefs want people to be mindful of the weather conditions before lighting a fire. “At this point, there’s no regulations in place for small fires into a fire pit, but you can’t go out into your backyard here and burning huge amounts of garbage,” said Musseau, who warns that could result in a hefty bill for fire services. “If they’re going to burn, think before they start. Make sure they’ve got something to assist, to keep control of the fire, and if it gets out of the area, they’ll be responsible for it,” agreed Osmond.

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