February 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 8
Sustainable forests need fire, say specialists
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Photo: Mountain Legacy Project
Taken in 1914, you are looking out at the hill that is now the Pass Powderkeg Ski Area in Blairmore. Click picture to see before / after pictures.
Pass Herald Reporter
Looking out at what is now the Pass Powderkeg Ski Area, the bald trails of the hill’s ski runs stand out like a sore thumb amid otherwise lush forest covering the hill.

It’s hard to imagine that, some 100 years ago, the hill’s naturally fairly sparse forest was the status quo. In fact, that was the status quo in most of Southwest Alberta: this was a landscape

It’s this change in our natural landscape that a presentation put on by the Crowsnest Conservation Society sough to explain and explore.

At the premise of the presentation, titled “Forests on Fire: the good, the bad, the unexpected”, was that to preserve ecological integrity, forests need to be managed and fire is an efficient manner of doing that. However, due to a focus on fire suppression and prevent over the past century, the forest landscape in Southwest Alberta has inherently altered, bringing with it an impact on the natural landscape and wildlife that inhabit it.

Three specialists examined the role that fire plays in the ecosystem and its ecological values in terms of shaping landscapes and forests around us.

Dr. David Andison, a consultant at the Foothills Research Institute (fRI) and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, was one of the speakers. Looking at the big picture, he looked at the role fires play in the greater ecosystem and how their absence may reshape the inherent structure of a landscape.
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There is no doubt that all of Canada is impacted by fire in varying degrees. Each and every landscape has a fire regime, a sort of unique fingerprint, as Andison explains, of how often fire happens and how big and severe the fires are. These factors form unique ecosystem regimes to which species have adapted.

“The fire regime, or disturbance regime, sets the stage for what happens in that disturbance. They create your landscape conditions, things like how much old forest there is, how much dense forest versus open forest there is,” says Andison. “Each ecosystem has this fingerprint, all driven by climate.”

Andison explained the fire regime using the example of a ball in a bowl, where the ball represents an ecosystem and the bowl portrays the regime.

“The ball represents the current condition and it moves around in the bowl. Within the regime, the ball moves around in that state. You push the ball around by having things like fires and floods and insect outbreaks,” says Andison.

Another factor here is the regime’s resilience, or the ability of the ball to roll back into the middle of the bowl.

“Resilience is the depth of the bowl. Once that ball leaves that bowl, it becomes a different system and it’s really hard to push back,” says Andison.

The historic ecosystem regime in the Southern Foothills is affected by a myriad of factors - insects, grazing, people, landslides, ice, wind, snow damage, all testing the resiliency of the ecosystem.
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And, of course, fire is another factor that plays a very important role on this landscape historically.

Over the past 100 years of human influence and with the introduction of policy around fire control, Andison says we have been gradually wearing away at the resiliency of our ecosystem.

“The resilience of that ecosystem, it’s becoming shallower and shallower and it’s a lot easier for that ball to flip over into a different state and essentially become a different ecosystem regime,” he says.

A changed regime could also generate a change in fuel and habitat types, alter with it the goods and services that the ecosystem used to provide.

“Because we changed the regime, and not just the disturbance regime but the whole ecosystem regime, Mother Nature is going to act differently. Fires are going to act differently,” says Andison. “We’re going to get consequences and we’re not going to like some of them.”

So what?

So if the fire regime has changed, does this affect the species that it is home to?

Well, wildlife species are flexible and over the centuries, have adapted to their natural fire regime, their environment’s fire history.

“There are conditions under which species are adapted and like the bowl, they have their own bowls and their ability to work within that bowl depends on the greater ecosystem having resilience,” says Robert Anderson, a Crowsnest Conservation Society board member and wildlife biologist with the Alberta Conservation Association.
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Anderson provided several examples of how fire influences different species – both in a positive and negative manner.

Of course, fire can have detrimental effects on entire species, potentially wiping them off completely if they are a rare resources, like the half-moon hairstreak butterfly. While fire has the potential to attract butterflies to an area, it remains to be seen whether the endangered half-moon hairstreak survived last summer’s Kenow fire, a butterfly found only on the Blakiston Fan in Waterton National Park in Alberta and a few other small areas in British Columbia.

“It’s the kind of species where some fire can be good to help rejuvenate the habitat, but because it’s only found in one area, it’s also highly at risk in terms of the whole thing being wiped out,” he says.

Another species that benefits from fire is, as the name suggests, the fire-loving beetle, who can detect fires as far as 100 km away.

“These guys are specialised in finding fires. The reason is that they lay their eggs in the charred trees that are burned. In some cases, the trees are still smoldering and these guys are laying their eggs,” says Anderson.

And then there’s the black-backed woodpecker, which is often found in burn habitat areas feeding on the fire-loving beetle and other bugs that feed on burnt trees.

Anderson provided several other examples of species, big or small, that use fire in some way, whether it is enhancing their habitat, finding food sources, facilitating reproduction or providing alert to predators.

“Wildlife populations are flexible. They can adapt to a variety of conditions and changes within a landscape provided that the bowl, the ecosystem resiliency, is there. If it moves from one bowl to another bowl, species will have a much harder time adapting or they will be replaced by something else,” says Anderson. “We can’t get stuck with the idea of maintaining forest in one condition and think that it’s going to stay that way forever because first of all, it won’t, and second of all, it will have consequences.”

There are broad consequences to a regime change, affecting the species that in habit a certain ecosystem.
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“We have historic ecosystem and disturbance regime. We potentially have a different one right now which maybe is not as good as the other one,” says Andison, adding that defining a ‘good’ regime is a personal interpretation. “If we want to move that ball back, and let’s call that restoration, then we’ve got some work to do.”

Empirical studies like the Mountain Legacy and Landscapes in Motion projects show a dramatic decrease in grasslands and an increase in Douglas fir species, a forest susceptible to crown fires.

“The rate of spread of the average fire between then and now is two to four times faster. The probability of getting a crown fire in a forest doubles,” says Andison.

The bottom line presented by Andison is that forests need to be managed and maintained to remain sustainable and uphold the fundamental regime, or to keep the ball in the same bowl.

This can be achieved through chemical process - reintroducing prescribed fire - or through mechanical abilities like logging.

“You have to come up with a disturbance plan. What is the regime fingerprint, what is the historical one, where is it today, and which one do you want? You decide what future you want and if you tell me as a scientist, we can design a disturbance regime to get you there,” says Andison. “That’s the easier part. The harder part is deciding which future landscape we want.”

What’s being done?

As a national fire management officer with Parks Canada, Jonathan Large knows first-hand how fire is used in the national parks system to restore ecological integrity lost prior through fire suppression.

Prescribed burns - the knowledgeable application of fire to a specific land area to accomplish predetermined forest management or other land use objectives - have been conducted within Canada’s national parks for approximately 40 years now.

Prior to the 1930s, the focus within national parks in Canada was on fire suppression, as opposed to fire management. It wasn’t until 1983 that the government caught on to the important role of fire and Park Canada initiated a prescribed fire management planning project in Banff National Park.

Amid a wary public sentiment, the first prescribed burn took place in Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park in 1983.

“They weren’t taking any chances. They were going against the grain and they knew it,” says Large. “They had to show that they knew what they were doing and that they could do it in a controlled fashion. So they started small, and they built on it.”

According to Large, Parks Canada plans prescribed fires years in advance and involved much effort and thought.

“We work really hard at building trust with all of our stakeholders and we really don’t want to make a serious goof that might compromise that,” he says.

In the planning stages, Parks Canada considers questions like the perceived interaction between topography, fuel and weather when prescribing burn parameters. They also consider more basic but equally important factors like why a fire is needed, with two common factors being hazard reduction or habitat restoration.

“It’s not just to roast marshmallows. We want to see something on the ground that has a long term goal in mind,” says Large.

Andison, however, has a different viewpoint.

Is the government getting the message that prescribed fire is a valuable tool that is vital to ensuring the survival of current ecosystems?
Not really, he says.

“What was the fire fighting bill last year in B.C? About half a billion [dollars]. What was the investment in fire smart? $25 million. That’s all you need to know,” he says. “Governments are not getting the message and I would say that’s happening right across Canada.”
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February 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 8
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