OTTAWA CITIZEN — A federal forest fire scientist has come to a paradoxical conclusion, finding that fire suppression measures in recent decades have increased the fire danger in some northern communities.

Marc-André Parisien of Natural Resources Canada studied the boreal forest around 160 communities across Canada. This is a region where conifers such as pine and spruce are the main trees. And communities there, like Fort McMurray in Alberta or the area around Mont Laurier in our region, live with the constant threat of fire.

The main priority in suppressing fires has always been to protect human lives and infrastructure, especially homes, he said.

But around communities where federal and provincial measures have been suppressing fires for decades, the forest close to the town has become older because it hasn’t burned.

This creates two problems. Mature trees provide more fuel than younger ones, and there is also a buildup of dead organic material on the ground. The result is a forest that is primed to burn, close to where people live, Parisien found.
Natural Resources Canada forest scientists Ellen Whitman and Marc-André Parisien conduct research. HANDOUT/Natural Resources Canada

Protecting the communities has paradoxically led to an increase in the amount of fuel sitting at their doorsteps. By contrast, areas that have had fires in recent decades grow back with young trees that are less likely to be part of a major fire in the near future.

The results are not identical everywhere, but the study says there’s an overall trend “indicating a higher vulnerability of those communities to wildfire. These findings suggest that suppression policies are increasing flammability in the wildland-urban interface of boreal Canada.”

He works in Edmonton and was there through the massive Fort McMurray fire of 2016. “I ate a lot of smoke from that fire,” he recalls. And he wonders: Did years of preventing fires just make that fire bigger and more destructive when it finally occurred?

It’s not necessary to clear away the entire forest but clearing patches here and there each year will add up to a forest that is not continuously dense and old, he said. One trick is to work with bodies of water. For instance, where there are two lakes that already act as a barrier, it helps to thin out the forest between them.

Each year crews are sent in to do “prescribed burns,” usually in small areas and during spring and fall when fire is less likely to get out of control.

And fire is good for many plants and animal species “that have co-evolved with fire,” he said.

“The classic example is the jack pine. It has completely closed cones with a waxy coating, and if you try to pry them open you’ll just break your fingers. The only thing that will open them is extreme heat.”

When a fire sweeps through they pop open like popcorn, releasing a “seed rain” — thousands of seeds twirling down like tiny helicopters. The seeds are also adapted to germinating in the charred remains of what has burned.

Aspen, white birch, and lodgepole pine also grow back after a fire because they need full sunlight.

Parisien says it’s impossible to stop all fires in the boreal forest.

“Sometimes the best protection is to have a really good evacuation plan.”

His study is published online in the journal Nature Communications.

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