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035 Flames across the border

In this fire focused episode I look into the fires across the province and also look at ways that we, as lovers of these landscapes, can help our western brothers and sisters in their time of need. I also discuss the important ecology that surrounds forest fires as well. While devastating, fires are also essential.

Forest Fires in B.C.

Recent forest fires in British Columbia have once again raised the horror of forest fires to the top of the news feeds. The hot dry weather that has been a constant companion for the past few weeks has allowed the number of fires to escalate in the interior of British Columbia and has sky watchers in Alberta thankful for the good soaking we finally received after some record hot temps.

B.C. has issued a state of Emergency due to the hundreds of forest fires and thousands of homes evacuated. This gives the province additional authority in times of emergency. The last time a province wide state of emergency was issued was in 2,003 which was another extreme year for fires.

As of July 8, there were still 9 major fires burning out of control in the province. They were located throughout the dry interior and Caribou regions. Thousands had been evacuated with little time to grab personal belongings, or deal with animals and livestock.

Numerous fires forced evacuations of the airport near Williams Lake. Firefighters are also arriving from numerous other provinces, police are moving inland from Vancouver and the military has been placed on standby to assist where possible.

The Canadian Red Cross has also begun to accept donations to provide assistance to those affected by the fires and evacuations. They are also helping to supply bedding and cots to people displaced by the flames.

In one day, on July 7, 142 new fires broke out across B.C. bringing the total to 182. By Monday, the number of fires had grown to 225.

Some of the largest fires are burning near Princeton and Ashcroft. The Princeton fire swelled by a factor of 7 in just a few days. As of Saturday, July 8, it was engulfing some 1,500 hectares.

The Ashcroft fire is more than 4,000 hectares in size. Cache Creek was also evacuated as a result of this fire. As the fire moved through Cache Creek, it burned two airport hangers and 30 homes in a Boston Flats trailer park. It also burned through the Ashcroft Indian Reserve.

A 3,200 ha fire near 100 Mile House forced evacuation of the entire town on Sunday, July 10. To complicate matters, they had to drive through the night to make their way to Prince George as Kamloops was already inundated with people that had been displaced by other fires.

The evacuation of 100 Mile House brought the number of evacuees in British Columbia to more than 14,000.

For firefighters, it seems that every tiny bit of progress on one fire is countered by new outbreaks, changes in the winds or fires closing in on new communities.

Williams Lake, a town of 10,500 now has fires closing in on three sides with a total of 5 fires burning in the area.

Alberta fire crews are heading to B.C. to help with the firestorm and thankfully, many areas in Alberta got a good dousing of rain today. This should help reduce our hazard level and free up more firefighters to travel west.

In an outpouring of generosity, Fort McMurry has reached out to help British Columbians. After enduring devastating fires last summer, the community is sending trailers full of bottled water, toiletries, medical supplies, food and fuel to Kamloops and Prince George.

This time last summer, they were the people in desperate need of assistance. Fort Mac lost thousands of homes and resulted in one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history. The fire was so massive and unpredictable that it was dubbed “the beast”. No matter what fire crews did, the fire seemed to thwart their efforts.

Youtube videos showing the evacuation are absolutely terrifying as some 60,000 people tried to head out of town on Highway 63, only single highway leading into and out of fort McMurray.

Canadians take care of each other. The Red Cross is now taking donations to provide relief to displaced families in British Columbia. To donate you can simply text ‘FIRES’ to 45678 and you’ll make a $10 donation to the Red Cross BC Fires Appeal. Cash is always the best way to donate. Goods are much more difficult to manage and involve larger logistic challenges.

If you want to do more, hold a fundraiser and donate the proceeds to the Red Cross or another organization assisting in the locally affected areas. Please focus on cash as local agencies are already overwhelmed and unable to accept donations of clothing and toys.

If you need to donate goods, contact local agencies and find out what they need before collecting materials and assuming there will be facilities and personnel to store and distribute it.

Also, like Fort McMurray, the residents of affected areas will need help long after the flames have subsided.

With changing climates, large fires are likely to become more explosive AND more prevalent. Even here in Alberta, while we are seeing more total moisture over the course of the year, we are seeing it in fewer, more extreme storms. Just today we ended a dry heatwave with a huge thunderstorm that produced prodigious amounts of precipitation.

For days, we have been in a similar situation to our neighbours in B.C. but we dodged the bullet with the large downpouring of rain.

As we look to the future, we also have to look at the changing climate realities. Longer droughts mean larger fires. Prescribed burns reduce the fuel available to potential fires, but they also provide natural fire breaks in the case of major fire seasons like this year, and 2003 which saw fires burning extensively through the Rockies.

That summer huge fires burned around the Blairmore area in the Crowsnest Pass as well as a huge area of Kootenay National Park. At its peak, three fires converged near Vermillion Pass in Kootenay National Park and made a run for the Alberta border and the adjacent Bow Valley. It took heroic efforts by fire fighters to keep that fire from sweeping towards communities like Banff.

It’s time to look at stepping up our programs of prescribed burns to keep up with the changing realities of climate change.

This summer, the mountain parks are planning a number of burns. There are numerous reasons for planning prescribed fires. They include improvement of wildlife or plant habitat, reduction of disease or invasive species, and most importantly at this time, they provide firebreaks and fuel reduction.

Ecologically fire is essential to most mountain landscapes. If we look beyond the immediate danger, the role of forest fires on ecosystems is a key process that helps drive the ecology of the mountain west.

While fire near communities is both inevitable and destructive, that’s where fuel reduction and prescribed burns can help provide effective barriers to conflagrations like the current ones being experienced.

Outside of communities, fire is a critical part of mountain ecological processes. In nature, any time there is a regular and inevitable disturbance, nature will learn to take advantage of it. That’s why the two landscapes in the Rockies that we, as humans, see devastation…forest fire sites and avalanche slopes, nature sees opportunity. They are too of the most productive habitats in the mountain west.

If we look at our local trees, many are particular fire adapted. Douglas-fir trees sport thick cork layers that allow them to survive all but the largest fires. Core samples from large Douglas-firs help fire ecologists to determine local fire histories often spanning centuries.

Trembling aspen trees are a truly unique plant. One tree will grow from a seed. It will then send out roots horizontally just below the surface. Periodically they will emerge as new shoots or suckers. That’s why if you have an aspen in your yard, every time you cut the lawn, you’re cutting down newly sprouted suckers that will quickly take over your property if you don’t stay on top of them.

Clonal groves of aspen can be enormous, spanning hundreds of hectares, all representing a single organism, joined by a common root system. They are also some of the oldest living things. Although individual stems are not particularly long lived, the root systems can live for tens of thousands of years. One particular grove in Utah, in the Fishlake National Forest, is estimated to be some 80,000 years old…yowza.

A single organism has been alive since long before humans made their way to the new world. Aspen groves living today could have witnessed the extinctions of the woolly mammoth. They could have witnessed the disappearance of the Neanderthal in Europe where their relatives also exhibit the same longevity.

When a fire comes through, the shoots are killed, but the roots survive. Before long, they begin to send up new shoots to greet the new firescape.

This brings us to the lodgepole pine. This common low elevation pine tree can’t even reproduce on a large scale without the help of fire. Its cones are sealed with a hard wax that will only melt when the temperature reaches approximately 45 C.

In this area, that means fire. It just doesn’t get that hot…at least not yet. They’ve actually taken this adaptation to fire one step further. They have perfected something that most gardeners would kill for, they’re a self-pruner.

Red paintbrush blooms in the Sawback burn in Banff National Park, Alberta

Any branch that doesn’t get enough sunlight, they shut off the power and let that branch die. That does two things. It lets them operate more efficiently in a harsh climate, much like a lot of corporations these days…killing off the unprofitable branches. But it does one other thing; how much do you think it will take to light those dry, dead branches on fire? Not much. In a way, they’ve found a way to attract fire, and through death comes life, comes a new generation of lodgepole pines.

This is a good strategy for lodgepole pines, and in the east, jack pines, because they can’t live in any shade at all. Not even the shade of another lodgepole pine. If a fire doesn’t shake things up every 90 to 130 years, eventually the shade tolerant white spruce will shade them out and they’ll disappear.

About this time, people say, “but what about the animals…we’ve all seen Bambi”. In reality, Bambi was not very realistic. Very few animals die in forest fires. A natural fire is not like a tsunami of death. It moves more like a tornado. It leaves almost as much unburnt as it burns. To fly over a natural fire, you will see something that looks like a patchwork quilt of burned and unburned areas.

It moves much more like a tornado than a wave of destruction. It is a very chaotic movement. If you watch coverage from the Fort McMuray fires of 2016, you’re constantly struck by the fact that while communities were devastated, individual homes somehow survived in the middle of the conflagration.

Animals take advantage of this pathwork character and pick their way between the burned and unburned areas to stay away from the flames.

However, imagine life as a common animal, a red squirrel. Now imagine spending your life chewing open the rock hard cones of the lodgepole pine, trying to get at the few seeds that are inside; it’s a whole lot of work for a few seeds. But suddenly, as those flames flicker out, for as far as the eye can see, the ground is covered with millions upon millions of juicy, tasty, succulent, chewy seeds. They’ll move back into that fire site as fast as their little legs can carry them, and hot on their tails will be every other seed eating bird and animal, and they’ll have the biggest feeding frenzy they’ll ever have in their lives…but even at their best, they can’t eat all those seeds.

At the same time, before the trees even stop smoldering, hundreds of large black beetles will descend on the scene. These are the white-spotted sawyer beetle. They’re several centimetres in length and then they have antennae that are as long as their body. I don’t care how tough you are, if you look at your shoulder and see one of these beetles, you scream like a school girl.

These are wood boring beetles and they lay their eggs in the newly burned wood. Well beetles don’t arrive in a vacuum. Hot on their trail will be an in migration of woodpeckers. The woodpecker population can increase by 500% following a forest fire as the woodpeckers are attracted to the insects that are attracted to the dead wood.

Well, what do woodpeckers do to trees? They bore holes in them. Those holes are what many of our native songbirds need to nest and so the songbird population also increases after a forest fire.

On the ground, for the first time in perhaps a hundred years, sunlight bakes the forest floor. This will spur an explosion of wildflowers, followed by a larger explosion of new shrubs and trees.

This new growth is the food the animals most people visiting the mountains are here to see. The word moose, is an Algonkian native term that literally translates to ‘twig eater’. They need the new twigs, the new growth that comes in after a forest fire.

In Montana, they did a study of grizzly bears and they found that of the foods important to grizzlies, almost all were more common in areas that regularly had fire, which simply means more bears in areas that regularly burn.

This includes buffaloberries which represent the single most important food to black and grizzly bears in the Rockies. They have just ripened locally and they line most low elevation trails and roads. Expect closures as bears are attracted to these critical foods. An adult grizzly can eat the equivalent of 75 Big Macs a day for the next 6 weeks. Fire makes fat bears.

Fire is as much a part of our mountain landscape as bears, berries, glaciers and global warming.

As communities, they are our greatest fear and our hearts go out to our British Columbia brothers and sisters. However in the larger ecosystem they are critical. As we look towards a future of changing climatic norms, we need to carefully consider the role fire will play in this changing landscape.

Prescribed burns can allow fuel to burn on our schedule rather than that of the fickle finger of fate. For the past 30 years the mountain west has been slowly ramping up the use of prescribed fires in order to improve habitat, reduce the rate that invasive species can move and in this story, most importantly, reduce the likelihood of large fires sweeping through our communities.

We really need to support our B.C. neighbours as fire terrorizes their communities at the moment. They will need our help for some time to come. At the same time, we need to also realize that fire is an integral part of our landscape. We can’t stop it without compromising the ecology that has evolved over millions of years around fire created ecosystems.

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