Prescribed burns are becoming more common as a way to manage northwestern Ontario’s forests, said forest fire officials in the region.

The intentionally-started fires are designed to renew vegetation and burn off dangerously dry or damaged areas.

A specialist on prescribed burns for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said that, for several years, the ministry scaled back on those types of fires after the logging industry began moving their slash piles out of the bush. Cleaning up after logging activity was no longer required.

But Scott Wiseman said the province is now returning to the practice of prescribed fires.

“We’ve always, in the past, viewed fire as being a bad thing, but we’re starting to realize — more and more — that a lot of the ecosystems up here require periodic fire to keep them healthy,” he said.

“The northwest region and the boreal forest is born of fire, and it needs fire to … ensure that the forest is healthy.”

Controlling a volatile setting

Without occasional destruction of the boreal forest, Wiseman said disease sets in, and older trees become susceptible to storm damage.

He said those downed trees then become a fire hazard.

Wiseman said the intentional fires are planned rigorously, and are done when the weather is appropriate.

Several burns are planned across the region for this year.

There is one already underway near Wabaseemoong First Nation to burn off dangerously-dry brush and grass.

“A lot of the forests up here are climax forests. They’re at the end of their life cycle. If it isn’t harvested [or] cut down, [then] disease, insects or storm damage [can occur], and it ends up blowing down and becoming a real volatile fuel type,” Wiseman said.

“We know that, in the summertime, when we do get fires, and there’s hazardous fuels like the blow-downs, [the fire can] become quite large, quite quickly and it requires significant resources to try and contain it.”

Extensive planning

The prescribed burns conducted in springtime, (like the one in Wabassemoong) are mainly to get rid of hazardously dry grasses, he continued. If those grasses were to ignite without the MNRF monitoring them, those fires could spread into the bush.

Wiseman noted prescribed burns are also done in the fall because there is a short window when fallen trees and any unwanted vegetation will easily burn. The healthy trees act as a natural barrier, due to the fact that by that time they’ve accumulated a lot of moisture, especially under heavily-canopied areas.

“There is some risk with any application of fire, so we have to make sure that, when we do look at doing a prescribed fire, we plan it out extensively and we make sure that we try and cover as many bases as we can to ensure the fire does not escape our boundaries,” Wiseman said.