Lingering tornado debris sparks wildfire concerns in Tweed, Ont.

Tweed tornado aftermath Photo by @vaughanweather/Twitte

It’s been nine months since a tornado tore through the Municipality of Tweed, Ont., north of Belleville, and yet the surrounding forests are still littered with downed trees and matted brush—prime conditions for a wildfire.

“You get a lightning strike, or you get a hot brake shoe coming off a vehicle, or a discarded cigarette, and you’ve got a Fort McMurray-level disaster here,” says Sandor Johnson, owner of the Potter Settlement Artisan Winery in Tweed.

Right now, Tweed’s fire risk status is high. And if the weather remains warm and dry, the municipality may introduce a burn ban. “All it takes is one ember to lift up and hit a dry spot,” says Sean Porter, Tweed’s fire prevention officer. “And before you can run and grab a rake or a bucket of water, it’s already outside the control of one individual.” 

Just last week, a transport truck broke down and caught fire at the end of Potter Settlement Road. 

And the day before that, Tweed’s fire department put out a run-away blaze a few kilometres from the tornado-damaged area.

“It was a matter of minutes before the fire just started running,” Porter says of the fire. “If that had happened 15 minutes to the west, we’d probably still be there. It’s a tinderbox over there.” 

The area affected by the tornado is so thick with downed trees that Porter says if a wildfire started, it would be unsafe to send in firefighters. Instead, the municipality would need to rely on water bombers.

Tweed has negotiated a five-year contract with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to be covered by the ministry’s water bombing planes between April to November’s fire season. The service will cost the municipality $6,500 per year.

The water bombers, however, are generally based out of Dryden and Sudbury in Northern Ontario, meaning that if a wildfire did start, it could be an hour or two before the planes arrived. The other issue is that the swamps, puddles, and gullies that Tweed’s fire department typically draws from when fighting fires are low this spring. “It’s gone too fast,” Porter says. “We didn’t get a deep enough freeze this year, so a lot of the surface snow is just absorbed right back into the ground.”

After the tornado touched down on July 24, 2022, residents cleared trees and brush from private land. But the surrounding Crown land has been left mostly untouched. Fallen trees clog rivers and areas once used for hunting are now too dangerous to enter, according to a letter sent to the MNRF from Bob Mullin, Warden of Hastings County.

Tweed has been trying to bring in professional tree removal services since the tornado first hit, but the municipality lacked the funding to afford it. Council petitioned the provincial government for financial aid, warning about flood and wildfire threats from the downed trees. But Tweed was met with a lack of communication from both the MNRF and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH).

It wasn’t until March 20, 2023, eight months after the tornado, that the provincial government provided Tweed with funding to support clean-up efforts. The municipality received $1.2 million to remove fallen trees, clear debris from rivers, and start reforesting.

As part of this funding, residents with fallen trees within 30 metres of a structure on their property are being asked to submit a property access waiver and release form to have the fallen trees removed. This is intended to create a firebreak so that if a wildfire did start, it wouldn’t have any easy path to people’s homes.

But Johnson points out that most property owners did this within the first few days after the tornado. “This was the first thing that people did when the trees came down. They cut them around their house and their driveways,” he says. Instead, Johnson feels the municipality should be clearing any debris within 60 metres of people’s homes and businesses. “You get a forest fire and your house is like popcorn. It’s just going to burn up. Thirty metres is not enough.”

To keep your property safe from a wildfire, Porter says you don’t want cedar and pine trees within 10 metres of a structure because they catch fire easily. He also suggests trimming branches within six feet of the ground as they can be reached by a grass fire, which would in turn cause your structure to catch faster.

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