Forest fire aftermath creates adult treasure hunt

Beth Rogers and Thayne Robstad spent more than a month foraging in a burnt Northwest Territories forest this summer.

The Saskatoon couple was in search of morel mushrooms, which thrive in the aftermath of forest fires. After this year’s widespread inferno in northern Saskatchewan, they predict morels will be plentiful there next year.

“They’re prolific after a forest fire. They don’t necessarily need fire, but they grow in huge numbers after one,” Robstad said. Rogers noted morels are more predictable and easier to spot in blackened tree stands where the undergrowth has been reduced to ash.

“It’s like a post-apocalyptic scene, and you’re always black, covered in soot at the end of the day,” Robstad said.

The couple said the reason the mushrooms seem so abundant after a fire is a matter of debate, but one thing certain: they are a highly sought-after commodity.

“People have been unable to cultivate these mushrooms in laboratories. They’re really just a natural thing. It’s why they command a high price,” Robstad said.

The couple collected hundreds of pounds of morel mushrooms on their N.W.T. adventure, selling to buyers at the end of the day and taking some home for their catering business. Picking a morel is like picking the fruit of the fungus, like picking an apple off a tree, they said.

The excursion was a learning experience for the pair, and one they thoroughly enjoyed.

“Being on the land and natural wild foods is our jam – it’s what we do,” Robstad said.

They plan to head to Saskatchewan’s north to gather the province’s world renowned Chanterelle mushrooms before summer’s end. They recommend people seeking their own mushroom adventure head out with a guide or at least a mushroom guidebook, to avoid accidentally picking a poisonous look-alike.

The future of the flames

Professor Toddi Steelman, executive director of the school of environment and sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, noted the Saskatchewan fire season typically extends beyond August.

“Who knows what Mother Nature has in store for us?” Steelman said.

“What we need to be thinking about now as a province is the future, the whole cycle of mitigation, preparation, response and recovery – and what that means in the face of climate change.”

Resources were stretched thin across the province and beyond, which is why military assistance was required, she said.

Steelman added firefighting efforts have been very successful so far, but this unprecedented year should open some eyes, meaning the province needs to be “building more capacity up north” in terms of firefighters.

She said resources were used to protect communities, mining and recreational sites, adding active suppression around those areas is an important strategy for the public, but equally important in other areas is to allow fire to play its natural ecological role.

Provincial officials have promised a review of this year’s wildfires, which she said is a terrific opportunity to look at what Saskatchewan wants to do in the future, even over the next 20 fire seasons.
Looking back on the summer fire crisis, Steelman said the provincial wildfire management strategy of prioritizing fires by zones worked well. She noted zero lives and limited structures were lost, which indicates success, considering the severity of the fires.

The relevant climate change model and historical indicators suggest Saskatchewan will experience extraordinary fires for years to come, Steelman said.

“If we don’t let fire play its role in those places, we’re setting ourselves up for larger, intensive fires.”

Saskatchewan needs to prepare itself to respond immediately to fire threats and then to recover from the inevitable, she said.

Fire isn’t bad, naturally

Saskatchewan forests are highly adaptable to fire. Most standing trees were birthed from the ashes of a previous flame, said Jill Johnstone, a biology professor at the U of S. “Conifers are born to burn. They’re like a phoenix.”

Johnstone said trees like the Jack pine and black spruce have essential fire adaptations. Their cones heat up, dry out and slowly open to release the next generation. These take longer to grow back, since they are starting over.

Deciduous trees, like trembling aspens, spring back quicker, since they have low ground roots.

“Fires are a part of our ecological system. We need to think about what happened this summer, and how we can act in the future,” she said.

The smouldering north should serve as a warning of what’s to come, she said, adding more severe fire seasons are on the horizon, and the real problem lies in the ways people have interacted with fire.

“The conflict between humans and fire has really little to do with the health of the ecosystem.”

A review may consider what people decide to protect and to let be. Firefighting resources were exhausted this year, but Johnstone said the province is only prolonging the inevitable.

Saskatchewan will not be able to fight its way out of the future fire problem, nor should it want to, she said, noting Saskatchewan has one of the highest natural fire frequencies in Canada.

Fire releases nutrients locked in dead materials. It stimulates productivity and creates habitats for small and hunted animals while also allowing berry and mushroom growth, she said.

The period of recovery after a fire, as life re-emerges throughout the tinderbox, is called ecological secondary succession. In the early stages of regrowth, the forest is not as flammable because the species that rebound the quickest hold moisture and don’t litter the forest floor with fuel.

Fire patterns are cyclic, and as time passes, fuel builds up and conifers take dominance so the level of flammability always changes.

The trees vary in the time they take to regrow, but they always will, Johnstone said, adding people might be able to stop a particular burn but that doesn’t lessen the forest’s vulnerability.

Looking back on the burn

More than 10,000 people fled the north, often with little notice, as fire frolicked too close to their homes. They were scattered across the southern areas of the province and even into Alberta at various Red Cross evacuation centres.
The provincial review should extend beyond officials to those directly affected by evacuations, said Professor Jim Waldram, a medical and psychological anthropologist at the U of S.

Only part of the story is heard if it relies solely on authority figures, he said, adding he’d like to see a comprehensive research process involving a large cross section of people with varying experiences.

“We shouldn’t just be satisfi ed with the body count approach,” Waldram said, noting thousands of people were affected, so the review needs to match that mark.

In the future, Re d Cross centres and collaboration with First Nations shouldn’t be an ad hoc process, he said, adding the capacity clearly exists for those communities to help in the crisis.

A thorough review will help uncover what actually happened, and show how future evacuations could better consider psychological, social and cultural effects, he said, adding the police, military and Red Cross did very well in “unprecedented times,” but now is the time to think about how to make the experience less stressful in the future.

“That to me should be the next step in future evacuation planning,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really imagined the scope of things, but we shouldn’t get caught flat footed again.”

Waldram has studied mass evacuations, including an in-depth report into the 2011 forest fire near Wollaston Lake that displaced 1,300 members of the Hatchet Lake First Nation.