Fire chief wants shanties off the ice in warmer than usual winter

·4 min read

A warmer than usual winter and a New Brunswick pastime have clashed to create a risky predicament for firefighters, says the chief of the Charlo Fire Department.

In the past two weeks, members of the department have had to deploy their rescue Zodiac on four occasions after receiving reports of fishing shanties floating away on blocks of ice on Chaleur Bay, said Chief Gaetan Sivret.

Last Monday, firefighters rescued three fishermen stranded on an ice floe after receiving a call about it at 8:20 p.m., he said.

In the three other instances of floating fishing huts — on Jan. 29, last Friday and last Saturday — there turned out to be no one in them at the time, he said.

Given the danger posed to firefighters as they venture out on the ice-filled water, Sivret said he wants the government to order shanties taken off the ice.

"The thing is, when we go on the water at this time of year, there's big blocks of ice. It's dangerous for my firefighters, first of all.

"If something happens, the [Canadian] Coast Guard has one helicopter in Nova Scotia and one in Newfoundland, so we're talking about three hours before my guys get rescued."

Radio-Canada/Serge Bouchard
Radio-Canada/Serge Bouchard

The Department of Public Safety is aware of the issue and stresses the importance of not venturing out onto ice before verifying its thickness, said Geoffrey Downey, spokesperson for the department, in an email.

"Ice rescues are a high-risk activity, putting both the victim and the first responders in a great deal of danger," he said.

Downey said the province has the power to issue an order or a ticket for the removal of an ice shanty but didn't say whether it would do so prior to the end of this season.

"Typical fishing season dates for removal of ice fishing structures are March 15 (south of province) and March 30 (north of Province). These dates may fluctuate depending on weather conditions," he said.

Across the bay in Listuguj First Nation in Quebec, fishermen were ordered to get their shanties off the ice of the Restigouche River, which flows into Chaleur Bay.

"Listuguj Public Security is urging all fishers on the Quebec side of the Restigouche River to immediately evacuate the ice and remove their shelters." said a notice posted on the First Nation's website last week.

"With the incoming storm surge, there is a danger of the ice breaking."

'This is a very special year'

In his 22 years with the Charlo Fire Department, Sivret said he can only recall one previous incident — about 15 years ago — where firefighters had to deploy their rescue boat in response to an ice shanty floating away.

"Normally, the bay is all frozen," he said. "We never have that problem.

"The only time we'll get a call for a shanty [floating away] is if they leave it too long on the ice and it gets warm, normally in May. This is a very special year."

Jill Maepea, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said that this past January was the second warmest the agency has on record for that month since it started tracking monthly temperature in 1937.

Charlo has historically averaged a temperature of -12.6 C for the month of January. This past January, the mean temperature was -6.4 C.

The deviation between the historical average temperature for January and the mean temperature for January 2021 in Charlo was also the largest deviation observed among all other communities in New Brunswick where temperature is tracked, Maepea said.

Last December was also warmer than usual in Charlo, with the mean temperature coming in at -3.7 C, compared to the historical average of -7.9 C.

"In the northern parts, they've still seen snow, but there's not really those low nighttime temperatures to create ice," Maepea said.

A drain on resources

Aside from the danger of having firefighters go out on the water of the water, Sivret said responding to ice shanties floating away requires resources that could be needed elsewhere.

On Saturday, just minutes after firefighters received the call about an ice shanty floating away, they got another call about a fire alarm at a business in town.

It turned out to be a false alarm, but Sivret said the two simultaneous calls meant fewer firefighters were able to respond to each.

"We had to divide the crew because of that. I went myself just to make sure everything was good."