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Environment

Federal fire officials update forecast for this year’s wildfire season

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EDMONTON — This year’s fire season forecast is normal across the country for the month of May, but the hazard is expected to increase for much of Western Canada this summer.

Natural Resources Canada’s Northern Forestry Centre in Edmonton, one of five research centres with the Canadian Forest Service, provided the update on Wednesday.

“For the month of May, we are showing normal or below-normal levels of expected fire severity through the entire country,” said Richard Carr, a wildland fire research analyst.

“However, through the summer beginning in June and extending through August, we’re seeing the western-most regions — British Columbia, Yukon, western Alberta — that have increased risk of fire severity and therefore the possibility of more fires.”

The daily forecast right now shows the fire danger is extreme in Yukon and parts of the southern Prairies, but officials said that can change quickly with the weather.

“Even during average years, bad fires can happen if they happen in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Bruce Macnab, the centre’s head of wildland fire information systems.

There are already several fires burning across Western Canada.

In British Columbia, an aggressive wildfire is burning west of Osoyoos near the United States border, and crews spent the weekend battling fires near some northern communities.

Alberta has 23 active fires, one of which is classified as out of control north of Peace River.

The most fires so far this year have happened in Manitoba, but 38 of those 57 fires have been put out. The province’s website says the fires have burned through 7,454 hectares.

Federal officials said the forecast they provide doesn’t predict the number of fires, only the weather conditions that could lead to more fires.

“We need ignitions to actually create the fires,” said Carr.

They said more than half of all wildfires are caused by humans and lightning strikes account for the rest.

Ellen Whitman, a fire research assistant, said the amount of area that burns increases annually across Canada.

“Historically, we really do experience a lot of fire in this country,” she said. “In recent decades, however, we’ve been seeing increases in those hot, dry, windy days — especially in Western Canada.

“The period of time … generally referred to as the fire season is extending or lengthening. In some areas, it’s becoming longer by weeks due to earlier springs and also later autumns.”

Whitman said a changing climate will continue to worsen the fire season.

“We expect fires to become more common in Canada, in terms of increasing in numbers, increasing in area burned and also becoming more frequent.”

The Canadian Forest Service works with provinces and territories on wildfire management, provides maps of daily fire weather and behaviour, notes fire locations and does monthly seasonal fire severity forecasts through an online information website.

Monthly forecasts help to determine trends expected for the upcoming fire season.

Canadians can also see daily fire danger maps online at http://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/home.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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Environment

Lyme-spreading ticks so common thanks to mild winters, some places stop testing

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Lyme infected ticks becoming common in Canada

OTTAWA — Lyme disease has settled so deeply into parts of Canada many public health units now just assume if you get bitten by a tick, you should be treated for Lyme disease.

In Ottawa, where more than two-thirds of the ticks tested in some neighbourhoods carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, the public-health unit no longer bothers to test ticks at all.

Dr. Vera Etches, the unit’s top doctor, said that in 2016 and 2017 more than one-fifth of black-legged ticks tested in Ottawa came back positive for Lyme.

“That’s a threshold,” she said. “Once you know that more than 20 per cent of the ticks in your area carry Lyme disease bacteria then we don’t need to check in on that. That is what we now call an ‘at-risk area.’ “

That means if a tick is found on a person, and is believed to have been there for more than 24 hours, then the patient should get antibiotics to prevent Lyme infection, even without any testing of the tick. It takes 24 hours before bacteria in the tick’s gut move to its salivary glands and are transferred to a person.

After three days, the preventive treatment won’t work so patients then wait for symptoms or enough time for antibodies to evolve to show up on a test. It can take more than a month before symptoms appear. They’re mostly similar to the effects of influenza, including fever and aches, as well as — usually but not always — a rash. It typically takes just about as long for the immune system’s antibodies to show up on a lab test.

If left untreated, Lyme disease can cause serious illnesses such as meningitis, but Etches is quick to point out that because it is caused by a bacteria, it’s treatable with drugs.

“It’s a good-news story, actually, that there is antibiotics that work to treat Lyme disease,” she said.

Most public-health offices in Canada used to test ticks submitted by the public, as well as conducting their own surveillance by actively seeking out tick populations and testing them. Some, including Ottawa’s, have decided now that Lyme is endemic, they should shift to public education and prevention as well as treatment.

Lyme disease was named after the town of Lyme, Conn., where the first case was diagnosed in 1975. It is caused by bacteria that are traded back and forth among black-legged ticks and migratory birds and small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Ticks bite birds and small mammals infected with the bacteria and get infected and then spread the disease when they bite their next victims.

Before 10 years ago, most of the cases diagnosed in Canada were in people bitten by ticks while travelling in the United States. But climate change has led to southern Canada seeing milder winters, which means the ticks that migrate to Canada on the backs of migratory birds are now surviving the winter in larger numbers, spreading the Lyme-causing bacteria more rapidly.

Canada started keeping track of Lyme disease cases in 2009, when 144 cases were confirmed or considered probable. Only 79 of those cases were believed to have been contracted in Canada.

In 2017, more than 1,400 cases were confirmed or probable across the country, more than two-thirds of them in Ontario and most of them believed to have been contracted locally.

National statistics for 2018 are not yet available but in Ontario, the number actually fell significantly, from 967 in 2017 to 612 in 2018. Etches said that was because 2018 was hotter and drier than 2017, and ticks thrive in wet, cool weather.

A 2014 study by the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases at the University of Manitoba suggested the Lyme-carrying ticks are expanding their territory by about 46 km a year, an expectation being borne out in health units’ mapping

In 2017 and 2018, Point Pelee National Park near Windsor, Ont., was considered to be an at-risk region but the rest of Windsor-Essex County in Ontario’s southernmost tip was not. In 2019, almost all of the county has been added as an at-risk area.

In 2017 all of Nova Scotia was declared to be at risk for Lyme Disease.

In New Brunswick, six of 15 counties were declared at-risk as of 2018.

There are also at-risk areas for Lyme in southern Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. While some cases of Lyme have been found in the other four provinces, the numbers are very low and mostly contracted elsewhere.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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Environment

Cambodia says 11 containers of Canadian trash among illegal garbage shipments

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Cambodia returning tonnes of garbage to Canada

OTTAWA — The Canadian government has asked officials in Cambodia for more information about 11 containers of Canadian garbage the southeast Asian country’s environment ministry says ended up there illegally.

Cambodia does not allow imports of any kind of waste, including plastics for recycling.

Yet 83 shipping containers of plastic garbage were discovered in the main Cambodian port of Sihanoukville, with what Cambodian media reports say were fake import documents labelling the containers as recyclables.

The discovery comes less than two weeks after 69 containers of Canadian plastic garbage was returned to Vancouver after having been illegally shipped to the Philippines almost six years ago.

The Cambodia containers arrived in a number of different shipments starting last October and were uncovered during a Cambodian campaign to crackdown on illegal imports.

The country says 11 of the containers originated in Canada and the rest came from the United States.

Bronwen Jervis, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, said the Canadian Embassy in Phnom Penh has asked the Cambodian government for further details.

“We are following this matter closely,” she said.

Jervis said the matter underscores why Canada is trying to reduce plastic waste. Last month the federal Liberals began the formal process to ban certain single-use plastics such as straws, takeout containers and cutlery. Canada and the provinces have agreed to work towards eliminating plastic from landfills as soon as 2040.

Unscrupulous garbage dealers popped up around Southeast Asia after China slammed its doors to most foreign plastic recyclables in January 2018, eliminating what had been the world’s largest market. Europe and North America were left struggling to find places to send their plastic recyclables and scam artists started offering to take the material for a fee, promising to recycle it but instead just illegally dumping it once it arrived.

Canada’s domestic recycling abilities are limited, with only about a dozen companies doing such work.

The garbage that languished in the Philippines for so long led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between Canada and the Philippines that only ended after Canada finally agreed to pay to ship what was left of the garbage back to Vancouver. It arrived there June 30 and was burned at a waste-to-energy facility in Burnaby, B.C.

The federal Liberals amended Canadian regulations in 2016 to require permits to export plastic waste that other countries would deem hazardous. No such permits have been issued in the years since, however plastic garbage continues to show up on other countries’ shores.

Malaysia has also alleged Canada was responsible for at least one container filled with plastic garbage shipped to that country.

Australia, the United States, South Korea and the United Kingdom have also been accused of sending illegal garbage shipments to a number of Asian countries, including Indonesia and Vietnam.

Canadian officials have not explained how the garbage is leaving Canada without permits or what, if anything, can be done to halt the practice.

—With files from The Associated Press

The Canadian Press

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