This week, forest fires are continuing to expand in British Columbia and one fire is moving in on Sunshine Village in Banff National Park. I also look into the plight of grizzly 148 and a slight softening of the hardline attitudes towards her Canmore wanderings. Finally, I look at the final results in Canada’s quest for a national bird.
Forest Fires Spreading across British Columbia and now threaten parts of Alberta
When I wrote last week’s fire focused episode, little did I know that my own community of Canmore would be smelly and smoky this week as fires continue to spread and the number of evacuees in British Columbia climbs.
The hot dry weather is showing no signs of abating and over the past week, the number of people forced out of their homes and communities in British Columbia has swelled from 14,000 to more than 45,000 as of July 18, 2017.
This makes it one of the largest mass evacuations in the history of the province. The previous record was an evacuation of 50,000 due to fires near Kelowna in 2003. Heat waves that year also caused massive fires across both Alberta and British Columbia.
Over this past weekend, high winds caused a number of fires to rapidly expand in size and has subsequently resulted in more evacuations.
In other areas, the fires around Williams Lake and 100 Mile House have stayed fairly stable over the past few days allowing firefighters to make some headway.
Some people are being allowed to return to their communities, although many may return to find their homes have been destroyed. Members of the Ashcroft Indian Reserve and the community of Cache Creek are returning home after an 11-day absence. Residents of 100-Mile House may also be returning home soon.
Province-wide, there are still 155 active fires burning and there is still no sign of significant rain on the horizon.
Closer to the Alberta border, a fire in the Verdant Creek area of Kootenay National Park ignited last week. This fire puts flames within just 2.5 kilometres of Sunshine Village in Banff National Park. In just 24 hours it swelled in size by a factor of 10, growing from a few hundred hectares on Sunday to some 2,000 ha by Monday.
The fire is considered to be out of control and crews are working in the Sunshine area to try to prevent the loss of any structures should the fire continue to spread eastward.
Huge water pumps are also at the ready in order to keep buildings wet if the fire encroaches the resort area.
As you can imagine, there is now a total fire ban throughout the mountain national parks. Kootenay National Park has also closed the Verdant Creek area all the way to the Simpson River in the south and Banff has closed Sunshine Meadows and Village, as well as access to the Egypt Lake area, Healy Pass, Citadel Pass, Whistling Valley and Pharaoh Pass.
I would expect additional closures to occur as the conditions continue to evolve. Even in towns like Canmore and Banff, the mountains are barely visible and the air quality is dropping fast.
Currently, the Verdant Creek fire is approximately 24 km from Banff and 31 km from Canmore.
Environment Canada has issued an air quality warning for Banff, Canmore and Kananaskis warning that:
“Due to the smoke, the AQHI (Air Quality Health Index) will likely reach 10, or high risk, in parts of Central and southern Alberta on Wednesday. There is some uncertainty as to where the thickest smoke will set up, but current indications are that the corridor of thickest smoke and poorest air quality will be between Hinton, Red Deer, and Edmonton.”
“Individuals may experience symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. Children, seniors, and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk.”
“In general, wearing a mask is not the best way to protect your health during a smoke event. In fact, masks may lead to a false sense of security, which may encourage increased physical activity and time spent outdoors, meaning increased exposure to smoke. They can also make breathing more difficult.”
The smoke is not only affecting communities in the Rockies, but it has spread as far west as Vancouver and as far east as Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. These smoke plumes can carry for hundreds of kilometres and as the fires continue to spread, we can expect air quality to suffer along with it.
In the interior of B.C., near Williams Lake, the Air Quality Index was reportedly as high as 23, and that is on a scale of 1 to 10 with a 10+ reserved for very high-risk air quality.
Today should see some of the winds shifting to send more wind westward to the coast, but the eastern slopes are still completely smoked in.
Also in last week’s episode, I talked about the need to ramp up our use of prescribed burns as we see summer weather regimes shift with the shifting of climate norms. As summers see more and more prolonged droughts, separated by severe storms, lightning caused fires may become far more prevalent.
To complicate matters, we have had years of fire suppression leaving many of our western forests susceptible to large fires. Even places like British Columbia’s Interior Rainforest, some of which may not have burned for a millennium or more, are susceptible to large fires if their normal weather regiments continue to change.
The interior rainforest is unique on the planet as more than 97% of all rainforests occur in coastal areas. However, while it is considered a rainforest, it doesn’t get enough rain to truly qualify. What it does get is huge accumulations of snow. The slow melting of this snow releases vast amounts of moisture and essentially allows it to simulate a true rainforest.
Should that change, these forests could also burn.
With changing climates we need to look at fire in a very different way. After my comments last week, I came across a CBC News article that interviews a fire ecologist by the name of Robert Gray, of R.W. Gray Consulting.
Gray consults with communities to help them reduce their overall fire risk and he echoes my previous comments. He recommends a minimum of doubling the current number of prescribed burns – especially if we see a continuation of the hot summer drought conditions that are becoming more common in the mountain west.
The extreme heat this summer created tinder that was ignited by thousands of dry lightning strikes. According to David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, the number of lightning strikes increases by 15% for every additional degree of warming.
To complicate things further, years of mountain pine beetle infestations have left tens of thousands of standing dead trees which are extremely flammable.
While the potential for large, catastrophic fires has been building over the past decade, the incidence of prescribed burns has dropped in British Columbia from 150-200,000 hectares in the 1980s to just 5,000 in the past few years.
Prescribed burns are a hassle. They’re smoky and smelly, and tourists hate them, but they are still a way better option than ignoring the problem and waiting for conflagrations to ignite.
For generations, first nations used prescribed fires in order to improve wildlife habitat. We need to recognize that these forests are going to burn, there is nothing we can do to prevent it.
Robert Gray is very clear that there is no way to avoid smoke in a prescribed burn, but as he puts it: “There is no ‘no smoke’ option…How do you want your smoke — wild or controlled?”
Recent studies have also shown that by having smaller, more controlled burns, the amount of smoke is reduced as are the amount of unhealthy particulates that are floating through the air at the moment.
Let’s use this as a wake-up call to begin looking at our forests and our climate as a pair. As the climate warms, the fires burn. Let’s ramp our prescribed burn schedules up to help keep the mountain west a little safer.
For some areas of B.C., fire breaks are being created the hard way at the moment. Let’s try to make the next decade one of adaptation to new fire realities.
Bear 148 Gets a Reprieve
In episode 34, I talked about the challenges that the Provincial conservations officers seem to be having when dealing with Grizzly 148, the daughter of Banff’s beloved Bear 64. If you’d like to listen to the story, check it out at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep034.
After an incident in the Peaks of Grassi area where 148 bluff charged a man with a stroller and two dogs, conservation officers live-trapped her and relocated her back to her home turf in Banff. They also made it clear that they planned to euthanize her should a similar incident occur in the future.
This was despite the fact that a bluff charge is simply a way of telling an intruder that she is in charge. Bluff charges are especially common when people bring dogs into bear country as dogs are easily perceived as a threat by bears.
She was in a designated primary wildlife corridor doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing. The people were in her turf, not the other way around. As we encroach more and more on wilderness corridors, we can only expect to see more and more incidents like this one.
After the relocation, a petition was started that attracted more than 4,000 signatures from people that did not want to see 148 killed for no good management reason. Even the individual that was involved in the bluff charge encounter supports the right of 148 to use that particular corridor.
She is just at the age where she may have mated for the first time and female bears are critical to the stability of the local bear population.
After this huge public outcry, conservation officers have softened their stance on 148. Alberta officials are now talking about a partnership with Banff Park Wardens when dealing with bears like 148 when she leaves the boundaries of the park and wanders into Provincial lands.
Despite this, Conservation Officer Jay Honeyman did reiterate that “bears cannot be within the developed footprint of the Town of Canmore”, despite the fact that the designated corridors force them to be within this supposed no-go zone.
In a recent article in the Rocky Mountain Outlook Honeyman was quoted:
“When that bear comes out we’re trying to do what we can to enable her to live on the landscape without causing public safety concerns,” Honeyman said.
“Nobody is taking this lightly. Nobody, more so people who work with wildlife, want to harm or euthanize wildlife … but we can’t and won’t ignore public safety.”
This is particularly important as the area she was spending time is an area where buffaloberries are now ripening. Many more bears will be attracted to the lower Bow Valley over the next several weeks as these berries ripen.
If you don’t know how to recognize this plant, then stop right now and watch this safety video that I’ve put together to help you understand the critical importance of buffaloberries.
Buffaloberries mean bears and so over the next 6-8 weeks, or until the first frost of the season, bears will descend to the valley bottom to feast on these critical berries.
Don’t walk along the town trails without bear spray on your belt – especially in the areas around Quarry Lake and the Peaks of Grassi primary wildlife corridors.
Things are only going to get tougher for bears in the Canmore/Quarry Lake area as the Town of Canmore pushes forward with its proposed mountain bike park in the Quarry Lake area. Mayor John Borrowman supports this ecological madness, continually claiming that the area is NOT a habitat patch and therefore not of importance to wildlife.
This is something that I have a lot of background in. I wrote two books on mountain biking, including Mountain Bike! The Canadian Rockies and Mountain Bike! Southwestern British Columbia. I also designed the original route for the famous Trans Rockies Challenge that ran from Fernie British Columbia to Canmore. It was called the “Toughest Race in the World” by both Mountain Bike and Bike magazines.
I’ve spent the past 30 years out on foot and pedal and, as a biologist, I’m always working to educate people on bear safety.
I understand the Mayor saying that there are already too many pirate trails that go through wildlife corridors and they should be dismantled. Wildlife corridors should be signed and marked off limits. This would have to be tempered by the reality that the corridors west of the Peaks of Grassi are already mostly useless – especially if we punish bears for using them.
Areas adjacent to the corridors are NOT places to put intensive development. If a bear is using the corridor and feels crowded, it will move into adjacent habitats. New trails will be used by bears if they are perceived to be quieter than the wildlife corridor due to less human use.
Building trails does NOT mean that bears will not use them, just ask the Nordic Centre.
I would also argue that the off-leash park should also be moved to an area not adjacent to critical habitat – especially since the town does NOT enforce illegal off-leash use outside of the dog park.
It’s time for this community to make a choice. Do we stand with wildlife, or do we stand with development? Do we want a vibrant community surrounded by intact ecosystems or do we want Disney? If you want the latter, hang out in Silver Tip as they are planning a wildlife apocalypse.
Please join with me in opposing this bike park, regardless of the faulty reasoning that the mayor presents to share its ecological basis. His logic is false and his support of this development indicates that maybe it’s time for a change at the helm.
Next up…no national bird for Canada
No National Bird for Canada
Way back in Episode 14, recorded in November of last year, I talked about an effort to get the government of Canada to designate a national bird. If you’d like to hear more about the story, check out the full episode at www.mountainnaturepodcast.com/ep014.
When I first began writing this story, I was unaware that Canada DIDN’T already have a national bird. After all, we had a national animal, a national tree and even a national horse – but alas, no bird.
In 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society sought to put an end to this obvious oversight by doing a national poll to see what bird should win the right to be Canada’s feathered flagbearer.
There were many contenders. People were invited to submit their suggestions for the best avian representatives and these were compiled to create a feathered list of frontrunners for a national vote.
The ballot contained a list of birds that would make an Canuck proud. They included the black-capped chickadee, the Canada goose, the snowy owl, the loon and the Gray (or Canada) Jay.
There were ardent avian allies of all the birds submitted. Any Canadian that has set up a winter bird feeder knows the black-capped chickadee with its habit of chirping its name as it collects sunflower seeds. It is a steadfast Canadian and refuses to leave in even the harshest of winters. They are friendly, and faithful to feeders from coast to coast.
The Canada goose is another bird known to all. However it has, a dark side as one of very few waterfowl that do most of their feeding on land. This leads them to gather on golf courses and public parks where they have become a nuisance, so their votes suffered accordingly.
The snowy owl seemed like a good options, but it is only known to a few dedicated birders and as a result, never garnered the numbers needed for a win.
Now the loon. That was one that I thought would be a shoe in. Most of its worldly breeding range is in Canada and its call has become symbolic with the northern wilderness. Few Canadians don’t recognize the haunting call of the loon and it has made many a camping trip memorable as campers try to imitate the call with their hands cupped tightly.
The rightful winner was the Gray jay. It’s a bird with many names, gray jay, Canada jay, camp robber, whiskey jack, Perisorius canadensis…take your pick. It’s an ever present companion to most outings in the wilds of Canada. Gray jays will quietly stalk your forays and appear just when the sandwiches are ready to be eaten. Turn your back on them and you may catch your corned beef flying off into the spruce and pine forest.
I was an early advocate of the loon, but I la ter sang the praises of the gray jay and it ended up taking the title of the bird most likely to become Canada’s National Bird.
Alas, this hope all came crashing down earlier this month when the federal government sent a terse message that they were not considering any additional national symbols at this time.
Is that the end of it? I hope not. Perhaps a flock of crafty camp robbers will roost on Parliament Hill and carry off politicians lunches until they cry “uncle” and demand the liberals move forward with this feathered designation.
And with that said, it’s time to wrap this episode up. If you would like to explore the Canadian Rockies, Ward Cameron Enterprises is your one-stop shop for step-on and hiking guides, nature workshops and keynote presentations. We will make sure that your next mountain experience is one to remember. And with that said, the valley is smoky, so I’m hanging out with the ashes. Talk to you next week.