MNRF investigating cause of devastating Parry Sound 33 forest fire

Click to play video 'Evacuations, fire restrictions in place as forest fires continue in northeastern Ontario' Evacuations, fire restrictions in place as forest fires continue in northeastern Ontario
Forest fires continue to move through northeastern Ontario causing fire restrictions and evacuations in some parts of the province. As Erica Vella reports some people who have watched the flames are say it's left them speechless.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) is investigating whether humans caused a devastating fire in northern Ontario.

The fire was first discovered on July 18 and is still raging strong in the Parry Sound area. One of 21 wildfires still considered “not under control,” the fire known as “Parry Sound 33” now covers more than 4,800 hectares of land.

According to the ministry, several of the fires in northern Ontario have been caused by human activity or lightning, but it is unclear what started Parry Sound 33.

“This fire is really large in nature, and it will take some time to determine whether or not the cause of this fire was, in fact, due to human activity or due to lightning fire and so we will continue to investigate,” MNRF spokesperson Shayne McCool said. “As soon as the cause is determined we will release the findings.”

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Fire crews continue battling dozens of fires in northeastern Ontario

However, there has been much speculation that the cause of the fire may be man-made.

While officials have not yet confirmed where the fire began, several people within the community believe it may have started on Henvey Inlet First Nation at the site of a wind farm development, where crews had been blasting rock and clearing land to construct wind turbines.

An employee working on the Henvey Inlet wind farm site on July 18 claims an Agro ATV used for construction had broken down in the bush and was ultimately the cause of the fire.

The employee, who asked Global News not to publish his name, says he was on site when the fire began.

At that time, the fire danger rating in the area was set to extreme, and according to the employee, he had witnessed several smaller fires as a result of equipment use throughout the week.

Similarly, OJ Grolman and her husband, who own a cottage on an island in Georgian Bay, had been monitoring the smoke coming from the Henvey area using powerful binoculars in the weeks leading up to the Parry Sound 33 outbreak.

According to Grolman, she had seen instances of smoke coming from the Henvey area and had been monitoring their frequency and duration. She says she didn’t report any of the preliminary instances of smoke, as she believed they were under control.

Story continues below advertisement

However, on July 18, Grolman decided to report a fire after she said the smoke didn’t subside, and the amount of smoke appeared to be much larger than what she had previously seen.

“Usually, their smoke was put out within a while, so on this particular day I watched it for about a half an hour, and I thought, this one is out of control. That’s when I made the call,” she said.

According to Grolman, she called officials at 4:30 p.m. on July 18. She says she was not the first person to report the fire.

Grolman also told officials that she had seen smaller smoke sections coming from that area in the weeks leading up to the larger fire she reported on July 18.

READ MORE: 21 of 55 Ontario forest fires remain out of control, officials say

Pattern Energy Group, the parent company overseeing the wind farm development at Henvey Inlet, did not comment on its potential role in the fire.

Instead, Matt Dallas, a spokesperson for Pattern Energy Group, says its primary concern at this time is assuring the health and safety of residents and workers in the area and providing assistance to the MNRF as it investigates.

“The cause of the fire is not known, despite a lot of rumours and speculation, however there is an investigation by the MNRF that is underway,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Dallas maintains that workers had been following MNRF guidelines and protocols leading up to and on the day the fire began.

“We follow the MNRF’s protocol and refer to their fire ratings on a daily basis, which dictates what activities we undertake. We have multiple safety and fire prevention measures in place, including equipment placed strategically in the project area to combat fires,” says Dallas.

According to Dallas, construction at the site is currently shut down. However, he says, the company had maintained a normal construction schedule leading up to the fire.

Dallas says Pattern Energy Group is offering full assistance to the MNRF in the investigation.

Now, hundreds of people from the Henvey Inlet First Nation, Key River and the French River Provincial Park areas have been evacuated as emergency crews continue to battle the enormous blaze.

Additionally, travel restrictions have been placed on parts of Parry Sound, Sudbury, Pembroke, North Bay, Kirkland Lake and Kenora due to the fires.

MNRF says Parry Sound 33 has received significant aerial fire suppression over the last several days, but it is still listed as “out of control.”

The ministry says crews from across Canada, the United States and Mexico have provided support to help fight the fires still causing devastation in the northern part of the province.