FREDERICTON – Unexploded ammunition is hampering efforts to extinguish three fires burning at Canada’s second-largest military base.
The fires have been burning for weeks at the Gagetown base in New Brunswick in an area rife with the remnants of decades of soldier training.
Stephanie Duchesne, a spokeswoman for the 5th Canadian Division support base, said the unsafe terrain has limited the base’s capacity to put out the flames.
“The fires were started by military training and are burning in those impact areas where military munitions are being fired into,” she said Monday.
“When the munitions hit the ground, they are supposed to explode and if they don’t they stay there on the ground and it’s a hazard,” Duchesne said.
“Because there is unexploded ordnance in those impact areas, it limits our ability to go on foot or mechanically inside those areas.”
With the area off limits, Duchesne said firefighters are tackling the fires from the periphery, creating fire breaks using bulldozers and bringing in two civilian water bombers from Quebec.
Two of the fires are about 500 hectares each, or five square kilometres, while a third is about 26 hectares — a small fraction of the 1,100-square kilometre army training area, the second largest in Canada after CFB Suffield in southeast Alberta.
The fire is located a minimum of three kilometres away from the base’s boundary, said Duchesne, who adds that there is no risk of the fires spreading beyond the training area.
Though the fires have been smouldering for a couple of weeks, Duchesne said changing weather patterns and winds have stoked the fires in recent days.
“It’s been particularly dry here in southern New Brunswick this year,” she said. “Fires are common in the training area throughout the summer season but this is exceptional.”
The heavy smoke surrounding the base has prompted Environment Canada to issue an air quality alert, warning that the pollution can aggravate respiratory conditions and chronic diseases.
The smell of smoke was strong throughout the capital region on Monday.
Dr. Na-Koshie Lamptey, the regional medical officer of health, said infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, smokers and people with chronic heart or lung diseases should stay indoors to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air.
Minor smoke conditions do not typically cause health concerns in most healthy individuals, he said.
However, if smoke conditions become more severe, people may experience irritation of eyes, throat and possibly shortness of breath, Lamptey said.
Duchesne acknowledged that the smoke is having a “huge impact” on surrounding communities.
“We’re conscious of the impact the smoke is having on our communities and we’re doing everything we can to keep those fires suppressed and to keep that smoke level down,” she said. “We’re hoping the weather cooperates and we’ll be done with these fires.”
She said Fredericton and Oromocto bore the brunt of the smoke on Monday, although late last week the village of Gagetown as well as the Hampstead area were thick with smoke.
– By Brett Bundale in Halifax