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Forest fires in Northern Ontario have been cause for alarm during the last two weeks, with residents in multiple communities being forced to evacuate their homes to escape the flames. Particularly affected is the Parry Sound District, as a result of the fire known as “Parry Sound 33”. This fire remains uncontrolled and spans 10,139 hectares, five kilometres west of Highway 69. The municipality of Killarney has issued an evacuation order and French River is on evacuation alert. Parry Sound 33 started on July 18, 2018 and has burned more than 100 square kilometres in the last two weeks.

Forest fires occur in Ontario every year and are a natural and important aspect of forest ecology, but as current events in Northern Ontario, British Columbia and California demonstrate, their effects on communities can be devastating. The size and intensity of forest fires vary depending on weather patterns, and this year’s weather has been particularly conducive to forest fires in Ontario. The 2018 fire season, has already seen 914 forest fires, as compared to 2017’s fire season, which only saw 274 in total.

The Forest Fire Prevention Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.24

Ontario law mitigates the dangers of forest fires through the Forest Fire Prevention Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.24 (“FFPA”), which is administered by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (“MNRF”). In addition to setting out rules on where and when people can start fires, the FFPA grants broad enforcement powers to conservation officers, police officers and fire wardens in preventing, containing and controlling forest fires. For instance, section 5 of the FFPA allows officers to enter onto any property or land other than a dwelling “for the purposes” of the Act or to inspect the site of a fire, and seize anything that may afford evidence in respect of an offence under the FFPA. Section 6 compels every person in a forest area to give an officer, upon request, any information as to the person’s name, address, routes to be followed, location of camps and any other information pertaining to the protection of the forest area from fire. Interestingly, section 7 provides that officers under the FFPA may use any privately-owned equipment and may employ or summon the assistance of every able person over the age of eighteen, except persons providing essential services and persons physically unfit, to “take such action as he or she considers advisable to control and extinguish a fire”.

Offences and Penalties

The FFPA creates offences that are punishable by both fines and imprisonment. Section 26 makes it an offence for a person to refuse to provide assistance when summoned by an officer under section 7, and section 25 makes it an offence to hinder, obstruct or impede an officer in the performance of his or her duties under the FFPA. Section 35 states that any person who disobeys the FFPA or an order made thereunder is guilty of an offence, and sets the maximum penalty for individuals at a $25,000 fine or three months’ imprisonment or both, and a $500,000 maximum fine for corporations.

Emergency Orders

The FFPA also allows the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to sign orders for the administration of the Act, such as orders imposing travel restrictions in any fire region. On July 19 and 21, 2018, the Minister issued such orders prohibiting access and travel in portions of Kenora, the Parry Sound District, Pembroke, Sudbury, North Bay, and Kirkland Lake.

Municipal Powers

Municipalities also have the power to issue emergency orders, but their authority to do so derives from Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act RSO 1990, c E.9 (“EMCPA”), which is administered by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Section 4 of the EMCPA states that the head of a council of a municipality may declare that an emergency exists and may make such orders as he or she considers necessary to implement the emergency plan of the municipality. Municipalities are required by section 3 of the EMCPA to have an emergency plan that governs the provision of services during an emergency. Municipalities can also regulate burning activities, and open air flames through the adoption of a by-law.

With forest fires currently scattered from Kenora to Cochrane, provisions of the FFPA and EMPCA are in effect Northern Ontario. It is yet to be determined how long the measures implemented under the FFPA and EMCPA will last.

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