Fighting fire with fire
By Shaelyn Poteet
It’s not often that fire is thought of as a good thing. In a controlled situation complete with marshmallows and good friends, maybe, but wildfires? Never. Well, never until now, that is.
On July 21, specialists and tourists participated in a hike on the Landslide Lake Interpretive Fire Trail, a four-kilometre trek that showcased the benefits of fire on a landscape eight years after the fact.
The trip was augmented with contributions from speakers from various organizations that pointed out the benefits of burning.
In 2009, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, in conjunction with Alberta Parks and the indigenous community, lit a forest on fire on purpose. Eight thousand hectares of trees—some more than 100 years old—went up in flames. Why? For healthier forests and safer communities.
Alberta has one of the oldest, uninterrupted boreal forests in the world. In the last 100 years the province has become the forerunner in wildfire prevention and suppression.
This has led to beautiful, old, dry forests with very little diversity and the perfect wildfire cocktail. The age and size of the trees, coupled with the fact that they were mostly coniferous (needled evergreens) lead to a reduction in available forage for wildlife like deer, elk and bighorn sheep, and provides the perfect highway for wildfires to travel on.
“We’ve created our own little potential disaster because there’s an old forest with lot’s of fuel that just goes on for miles,” said Area Information Coordinator for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Barry Shellian. He went on to say that 100 years ago, forests weren’t made up of one or two species, but as many as 20. This diversity helped provide natural barriers against fire and disease.
In an experiment to improve habitat conditions for native species, reduce the influence of the mountain pine beetle and provide a natural barrier to true wildfire, specialists with the organizations used fire to fight fire, and thus the Upper Saskatchewan prescribed fire was born.
“It was an area that we chose because if a fire came in from the [Banff and Jasper] parks there would be a break in the forest to stop it, and we were able to make an impact on a high mountain pine beetle population,” said Maria Sharpe, a wildfire management specialist with a master’s degree in Wildfire Management and Prescribed Fires. The burn area runs along 32 kilometres of highway, west of Nordegg.
A prescription to burn
When nature lights a fire there’s no thought behind it. There’s a spark and a boom, because nature doesn’t care about communities or boundaries. Wildfire management specialists do though, which is why a prescription has to be written before a prescribed fire can be set.
This prescription first takes into account the social effects of a burn—who’s hunting, fishing or hiking in the area and what kind of impact would a burn have on tourism.
Smoke management and highway visibility are important factors to consider as well. These things determine the time of year that a burn takes place.
Next to be considered are weather and environmental conditions, topography—how the land is set up—and what kind of fuels are available to burn.
The prescription looks at what kind of burn is wanted, such as a ground fire to take care of underbrush and deadfall or a stand-replacing fire with the goal of removing a certain percentage of trees from a given area. This will determine what methods are used to set and manage the flames.
“Generally speaking,” said Sharpe, “a prescription fire covers what you need to do to meet the objectives and how to do that safely.”
The Upper Saskatchewan prescribed fire was to be a stand-replacing burn, with the goal of removing 70 per cent of the crown or tree tops. The idea was to remove as much old, dry pine and spruce from the hillsides in order to replace them with deciduous trees like aspens.
Aspens are quick-growing and, by the standards of trees, short-lived with a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. They shoot up quickly and provide shelter and browsing opportunities to wildlife. Most importantly, aspens help the soil retain moisture and improve the nitrogen content of the earth, which will allow for healthy coniferous growth in the future.
With a high moisture content, aspens also provide a natural barrier to true wildfire.
To achieve this, teams lead a two-pronged assault against the greenery.
Using both ground ignition for undergrowth and deadfall, and aerial ignition to reach the tops of trees, crews began lighting fires. They worked in stages, starting near the top of the hill, which, as they moved down towards the highway, drew the smoke up and away from traffic. Starting at the top of the hill also effectively prevented it from going anywhere that it shouldn’t, as fires tend to move uphill.
“We didn’t just light the fire,” said Shellian. “We had control of the fire and started at the top [of the hill], which drew the fire and smoke away from the highway.”
The entire burn was completed within a four-to five-day period.
Destruction in the name of conservation
“A continuous coniferous stand lacks diversity,” said Corey Rasmussen, a wildlife biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) which is a delegating administrative association. Though independent from the government, it works hand-in-hand with government agencies in order to benefit the environment.
Rasmussen went on to say that diversity translates into a lot of food for ungulates (spilt-toed grazing mammals), and a lack of diversity means a lack of food.
It was this lack that led to the initiation of a habitat enhancement program, which worked in conjunction with the Upper Saskatchewan prescribed burn.
“Some of the species our focus was on are bighorn sheep, elk and deer. Sheep like open areas where they’re able to see a good distance. Elk and deer like open areas where they can forage but also have some cover nearby.”
One of the problems introduced by an aged coniferous forest is a lack of sheltered meadow areas for ungulates to forage in. The dense cover of the branches and the fallen needles also prevents adequate forage growth, further reducing food supplies. As well, as the tree cover aged and grew it encroached up the hillside to the steep cliffs where bighorn sheep like to hide from cougars, which let the big cats creep up unseen. This had a significant impact on the sheep population in prior years.
Since the burn in 2009, there has been a dramatic increase in forage availability. The open spaces provided by the fire have also opened up a true, natural winter habitat for ungulates on the south slope of the valley. This openness allows the sun to reach the forest floor and melt snow so that sheep, deer and elk have access to forage all year long.
“Trending data now indicates that we have opened up areas so that forage and forbs are coming up and biomass is increasing,” said Rasmussen. “With the burn happening we can have a real winter habitat, because the sun can reach [the ground].
“Not too long ago a fire looked like a horrible scar on the landscape. Now we are trying to teach people that fire is not always bad. Prescribed fire is helping us work toward a greater and healthier landscape. There’s an increase in overall seasonall habitat for wildlife. In my opinion, as a biologist, this is one of the only real treatments that you can put down on the ground and have a large-scale effect—and it’s a natural effect.”
Burning for diversity
“Whenever you have a monoculture you are at risk for an attack from any kind of disease,” said Arlene Somers. Somers is a horticulturalist who has spent her life studying plants.
Prior to the burn in 2009, the forest lacked diversity. There were very few species of trees and grasses available for forage, which left the environment at risk for disease. Now, eight years later, that has changed.
“As a horticulturalist, it’s fascinating to see the diversity,” said Somers. She was able to identify over 20 species of native grasses, flowers and shrubs along the pathway.
There were many different kinds of trees and bushes as well, all lending to a healthier forest.
The diversity gives animals like deer, elk and bighorn sheep options for forage and browsing. It provides shelter for rodents, which feed weasels and martins. There are an abundance of berries and roots which feed the bears. Having a thick mat of vegetation on the ground also reduces erosion and helps with water-retention.
“The plants are showing us that the fire was successful,” said Brett Bowerman of Alberta Parks. Since the fire, there are obviously different ecosystems, the edges of which are called ecotones.
In many places aspen saplings have erupted in a dense carpet, thanks to the open spaces provided with the absence of pines and spruce. Between their trunks, wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, nodding onion, blue bells, sage and fireweed grow profusely.
“I love the diversity and the way that you can see so many different species come in, because it aligns with everything I’ve learned as a horticulturist,” said Somers. “I like that the controlled burn is as close as you can get to a natural event, so rather than fighting against nature, you’re working with nature.”
Burning for respect
“Fire has always been a sacred tool for indigenous people,” said Kirby Bigchild, the executive director of the Rocky Native Friendship Centre. For thousands of years indigenous people used fire to improve the environment and their lives. Fire was used to open up grazing areas for bison.
The smoke even drew in animals for miles and provided them with relief from biting insects.
It was used to clear trails and burn underbrush to get rid of ticks. Fire edged areas where sweetgrass and wild onions grew and prevented other species of plants from taking over.
“It was a valuable tool for improving grazing and taking care of the trees,” said Bigchild. “They would drill holes in a large tree, put charcoal in it and let it do its magic and the tree would drop.”
The end result
In the end, the Upper Saskatchewan prescribed fire had an immense impact on the environment. The forest is healthier and more diverse, bringing in more animals and plants. There’s less erosion, healthier soil and the forest is set up to succeed in the future.
“I was happy to see that all of our objectives were achieved,” said Sharpe.