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Out-of-control blazes already raging as Ontario braces for wildfire season

© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

As large parts of the country struggle with the spread of wildfires and mandatory evacuations, swathes of Ontario sit under forest fire warnings.

An extreme fire warning is place for parts of Ontario that include Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, Algonquin Park and areas of traditional cottage country around Georgian Bay.

Large fires are also already burning across Ontario’s north.

An out-of-control fire near Wawa, Ont., is measured at almost 6,000 hectares, spilling onto provincial highways.

On Tuesday, Highway 631 was closed because of the fire. At its southern tip, the same fire appears to be bordering Highway 17 — the Trans-Canada Highway, according to a map maintained by the province.

Another fire, measuring 10,000-plus hectares, is burning out-of-control just kilometres from Cat Lake First Nation.

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“Our FireRanger crews are working hard to contain these fires under a high to extreme fire hazard, which has created challenging conditions for Fire Crews and resources,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry told Global News.

“Crews will continue to work towards containing this fire while ensuring public safety is maintained.”

Those crews of wildland firefighters in northern Ontario have struggled with recruitment and retention issues over the past decade.

A 2016 report warned the province’s fire rangers were quitting at an alarming rate, were less experienced than in previous years, and were comparatively underpaid.

A memo sent to firefighters in 2022, suggests the issue persists.

“We have noticed both a decline in the number of people applying for positions across the Branch, and also seeing an increase in the number of people leaving our organization for employment opportunities elsewhere,” Chris Cuthbertson, director of AFFES, wrote on July 14, 2022.

The province said between 500 and 800 fire rangers were employed every year, depending on the number of applicants and fire conditions across northern Ontario.

In May 2023, Global News also heard concerns that the province’s full fleet of waterbombers — key to fighting large forest fires from the air — was not ready for the start of the fire season on April 1.

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While acknowledging seasonal maintenance delays from things like the weather had delayed the full fleet from being ready in April, the province said a complete fleet of 28 firefighting aircraft was ready by May 31 to help as the fire season intensifies.

Dry conditions across northern Ontario — with heat and thunderstorm warnings in place across parts of the north — have the province on high alert.

With a potentially severe fire season on the horizon, fire bans are in place at a range of Ontario parks, including Algonquin, French River and Quetico.

Massive wildfires have already swept Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick

The Tantallon and Hammonds Plains wildfire in the Halifax area, for example, has grown to 837 hectares and has so far destroyed some 200 structures. More than 16,400 people have been evacuated in that wildfire.