Mines and communities work together to fight forest fires during hot and dry July

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Quebec mining companies played a vital part in communicating with First Nations communities and hosting firefighters from elsewhere in Canada and the United States during July as 400 firefighters were flown in to help contain forest fires resulting from lightning strikes during an unusually dry spring and summer.

By July 22, 452 fires had been recorded in Quebec this year, compared to an average of 307 by the same time of year during the past decade. Almost 30,000 hectares have been burned according to the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU).

While 16 fires were active as of press time, much of Quebec’s forest regions were ranked as being in extreme danger as hot, dry weather continued into late July.

“Nature started the fire and nature controlled it,” said Matt Manson, CEO of Stornoway Corporation. Stornoway decided to close their mine due to two fires south and southeast of the mine started by storm fronts encroaching towards the airstrip 11 kilometres from the mine and 200 metres from the service road.

“The wind was blowing from south to north so [on July 1] we took the decision as the loss of the airport and road would otherwise strand several hundred people. We moved everybody out leaving a skeleton crew of 38 people,” Manson explained.

The mine reopened three days later after 22 millimetres of rain fell. “By Wednesday we moved back in. It was a health-and-safety decision. We have an underground mine with ventilation so we had also the risk of blowing smoke. We lost three days of production but it provided a good test of our Emergency Response Plan and structure and we also used helicopters to put water on the hotspots,” continued Manson.

Wildfires in the north are “part of life,” said Manson. But he underlined that his company “did a good job” in its stakeholder relations, both with First Nations neighbours and employees in communicating what was happening through the company’s Facebook page. The efforts received appreciative comments for the timeliness and reliability of the information.

“It was a victory in terms of not paying lip service to health and safety and we impacted on the communities the broader values of the company to our neighbours who want commercial developers to show stewardship,” concluded Manson.

Forest fires are treated under two categories in Quebec. Category 1 fires on lands which usually occur on the Southern surface below the 50th parallel and contains more vegetation and Category 2 fires that occur on the Northern surface above the 50th which is the effective treeline, Leroy Blacksmith, Regional Fire Marshall for Eeyou Istchee, told the Nation. “SOPFEU looks after Category 2 fires but only when they start to close in on First Nations or the mines,” he explained.

Blacksmith noted that less precipitation this year is making conditions more dangerous. “Last year, the water levels were much higher and the land was damp,” he said. “This year the lakes and waters are pretty dried up.”

Osisko Mining’s Windfall Lake gold project fell prey to one of the biggest fires about 40 kilometres from its facilities, located 200 kilometres northeast of Val-d’Or. It required 100 firefighters to contain the outbreak. “It came from a lightning storm. We’d had no rain since spring,” said Alix Drapack, Osisko’s Vice-President of Sustainable Development.

The company accommodated 80 firefighters at its project site to enable them to fight Fire 368, which comprised almost 10,000 hectares. With 60 First Nations employees on their site, the company was also in frequent contact with Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack, according to Drapack.

GoldCorp affirmed that the fires allowed the company the opportunity to validate that its procedures were well executed, said Communications Manager Julie LaChapelle.

From a First Nations perspective, mitigating impacts after the fires is comparatively straightforward.

Firstly, the Cree Trappers Association covers the loss of any cabins from fire occurring on reserve chalk lines, said Eli Moore from the Grand Cree Council’s Department of Commerce and Industry while harvesting agreements between First Nations and forestry companies to recover burnt wood have been in place since 2002.

“Crees view forest fires as an opportunity for new growth,” said the Cree Grand Council Director of Environment and Remedial Works, Isaac Voyageur.

“The species come back – first the woodpecker harvesting bugs embedded in the tree; the land rejuvenates, then an abundance of blueberries, other berries and then the moose,” Voyageur explained.

Prior to the 2002 New Relationship Agreement with Quebec, forestry companies took all the burned wood.

Under the agreement, forestry companies can use only a maximum of 70% of the burned wood following a wildfire. The Quebec government provides satellite images of the parameters of the fire and the Cree and the companies agree what is to be harvested.

Voyageur was keen to stress that, under the agreement, the burned wood was not an additional quota or windfall for the companies. They need to deduct the tonnage of wood from companies’ annual greenwood quota.

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