Last month I travelled to the Rocky Mountains of Missoula, Montana, for a crash course on wildfires alongside 20 other journalists. My big takeaway? Yes, wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive than ever before. But reporting as if all wildfires are natural disasters is a big mistake. Evacuations and smoldered homes are human disasters, no doubt. But from the forest’s perspective, fire is as essential as water. Here’s why:
- Forest fires revitalize plants, trees and mushrooms by releasing nutrients into the soil and opening up the forest canopy to sunlight. Some species of trees even need fire to open their cones to release seeds. All kinds of wildlife like elk and bees then follow.
- Without regular fire, forests become overgrown and unhealthy as trees become crowded and choked of sunlight. Unhealthy trees become prone to epidemics like the pine beetle and parasitic plants like dwarf mistletoe — all of which are flammable “ticking time bombs,” according to fire ecologist Robert Gray. These forests are more prone to megafire. That’s the term for an extreme fire that’s burned more than 100,000 acres. (Roughly the city of Kingston, Ontario). These are the kinds of fires that are on the rise.
But as more of us move into the forest, we put fires out and disrupt this natural cycle. To lower the risk that comes from this, Canada’s provincial wildfire agencies light fires.
As I write this, hundreds of controlled burns are being planned and lit (if spring conditions are right) from coast to coast — just as Indigenous peoples like the Dene and Cree have been practicing for millennia. If done right, you wouldn’t even know there was a fire one month later, explains “burn boss” and fire ecologist Robert Gray.
Experts like Gray say we’re only tackling a fraction of what’s needed. About 5,000 hectares are burned annually in B.C., down from an average of 150,000 hectares in the 1980s he tells me. And millions of hectares remain in serious need of controlled fires in B.C. alone.
Meanwhile, megafires are becoming more common and the cost of fighting them keeps going up. What can we do about this? Support controlled burns around your community, Gray says, since public fear and hesitancy around fire and smoke is an added barrier for burn bosses. Your forest will thank you for it.
Location: Near Cranbrook, B.C.
Goal: Kill young trees, retain most large trees to encourage grasses for elk and deer, reduce risk of catastrophic wildfire.
Burn bosses: Robert Gray, fire ecologist, and Mike Morrow, fuels management specialist.
Size: 570 hectares, equal to roughly the same amount in sports fields.
Weather considerations: Temperature, humidity and wind.
Key players: ʔAq’am First Nation, BC Wildfire Service Cranbrook Fire Zone, Cranbrook and Kimberley Fire Departments, plus contractors.
Tools: Hand held drip torches, a helicopter dropping balls of fire.
Burn Plan: Forty pages long including design, smoke plan, outreach plan, ecological monitoring.
Success: Yes. But three more burns were planned and will not be completed.
See it yourself
Lighting prescribed burns is as organized as a honey bee dance. Check out this drone footage of one way to do it.
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