Why Ontario needs more forest fires

forest fire in Alberta
CC BY 2.0 Cameron Strandberg

Forest fires seem scary, but they're not always a bad thing. The Environmental Commissioner explains why they're desperately needed in Ontario's boreal north.

Forest fires are not always a bad thing. In fact, the constant suppression and fighting of forest fires have created problems in the boreal forest of northern Ontario that worry the province’s Environmental Commissioner. In her annual report, Commissioner Diane Saxe recommended that Ontario let natural forest fires burn longer before put them out and that the province light more controlled fires.

Saxe writes in her report:

“It can be reasonable to suppress fires in forests where mature allocated timber is at risk. However, in doing so, we deprive these forests of the natural disturbance that has shaped them. Too much weight has been given to the future value of timber.”

Such advice may sound counterintuitive, but it’s important to realize that fire plays an important role in the maintenance of healthy, resilient forests. It creates pasture for large animals like moose and caribou (whose populations are dropping). It clears out the brushy undergrowth to allow for faster, stronger regeneration. It softens the resin in jackpines’ cones and releases seeds for new trees. It can kill off pest populations, such as the pine beetle. It also creates a safety barrier for future fires that could occur.

Timber companies are cited as one of the main reasons why forest fires have been suppressed in recent decades. They do not want prescribed burns taking place near their commercial timber stands, for fear of losing valuable trees.

Another change has been the withdrawal of provincial government subsidies for prescribed burns. Whereas it used to cost foresters only $75 per hectare to conduct a burn, it now costs around $900. TVO reports:

“That’s led to a massive decline in the number of deliberate fires: between 1998 and 2014 only 8,000 hectares saw prescribed burns, an area roughly equal to the City of Toronto’s park system — a pittance in the vast north. The decrease has a simple enough explanation: at the higher rates, forestry companies are opting instead for cheaper, but inferior, chemical and mechanical methods of forest restoration.”

Another unfortunate consequence of fewer prescribed burns is loss of knowledge. Nearly three decades have passed since prescribed burns in Ontario’s north were standard procedure, which means that many of the people who conducted them are retiring. The knowledge of how to assist a forest’s regeneration is waning, although Parks Canada is trying to reinstate prescribed burns as part of its strategy for better managing the country’s national parks.

“These fires are ignited by park staff. How they are managed is planned before-hand. Trained specialists decide when, where, and under what limits such fires will be permitted to burn. They consider weather, type of vegetation, fire behavior, and terrain in order to burn safely and meet ecological goals.

"Prescribed fire involves some risk. However, it is less than the risk of letting wildfire burn unchecked or trying to exclude all fire. Decades of fire suppression have created a build-up of dead wood (fuel) in the forest. This can result in an extremely intense fire. We can lower this hazard by prescribed burning or thinning trees to reduce fuels around facilities and towns.”

The importance of allowing forest fires really hit home for me this summer, while traveling through the Kootenay Rockies of eastern British Columbia. For two hours I drove past barren mountainsides where vast stands of lodgepole pines have been killed by pine beetles. Apparently this is the unintended consequence of fire suppression over the past half-century; it has allowed the trees to grow older than usual and provided a rich food source for beetles. The result is an epidemic of beetles that are killing the forest in a far more destructive way than a forest fire would.

Kootenay National ParkMats Skolving -- The pine beetle has ravaged the lodgepole pines of Kootenay National Park in British Columbia/CC BY 2.0

The Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry has given an ambiguous response to the Commissioner’s report: “We’re continuing to do some prescribed burns in the province, but ultimately public safety is number one.”

Tags: Canada | Forestry | Ontario | Trees

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