Good fire, bad fire: the benefits of prescribed burning

Ian Adams – Outreach Coordinator, Rocky Mountain Trench Ecosystem Restoration Program.

The sight of the large plume of smoke yesterday from the prescribed burn at ?aq’am likely raised the heartbeat of more than a few people. Memories are still fresh from similar columns in the region during last summer’s intense wildfire season that were visible in just about every direction. Weeks to months of lung-clogging smoke hung over the valley, blotting the sun and fouling the air.

Why then would we purposefully light a blaze so close to towns, home and property? The answer is because we have a choice: prescribed fire under reasonably controlled conditions, lit on our terms when we want it, or the increasing risk of out-of-control fire sparked by lightening or human carelessness at times when it is most likely to take off and burn at catastrophic levels for weeks or more. We can generate smoke, like yesterday, at times when venting is at its best and fires can burn fast, exhaust their fuels and be extinguished.

Prescribed burning will not eliminate larger fires, but it does reduce the risk of them occurring close to valuable property and helps create defendable space where an out-of-control wildfire can be brought to the ground and managed.

The Kootenay River valley and surrounding areas are part of the Rocky Mountain Trench, a massive geological feature running from Yellowstone to the Yukon that is visible from orbit. This little part of it that we call home is a remarkable piece of land, inhabited for millennia by the Ktunaxa people.

The ecology of the Trench is dominated by fire. Research looking at fire scars in old trees has shown that the historical fire frequency in most of the area averaged roughly 10 to 15 years. The plants and wildlife not only adapted to this regular disturbance but became dependent on it. These fires were, as often as not, lit by the Ktunaxa ancestors who recognized its value in maintaining forage for game populations and open forests for longer sightlines and safety from summer wildfire.

Suppression of fire has been wildly successful since the end of World War II. But now, we recognize that fire is an essential component of our Trench ecosystem and, ultimately, key to our safety plan. Consensus among fire ecologists is that the coming years and decades will see hotter, drier summers, creating conditions ripe for larger, hotter and more destructive fire. Like it or not, this is our future. It is already our present.

Fire suppression leads to dense forest growth, thick clusters of small, dead and dying trees that are unable reach sunlight needed for growth. This dead material is manna for wildfire, feeding bigger, hotter blazes that consume all in their path: small trees, big trees, grass and homes. Soils are deeply scorched, destroying the organic duff and setting back regrowth by decades. This is bad fire and the best way we know to help reduce its risk is to manage the fuels.

This brings us back to yesterday’s prescribed burn at ?aq’am. Dense growth was first mechanically removed to reduce risk. Plans were drawn up using natural landforms and larger fuel breaks established to form defendable boundaries to keep the prescribed burn in check. Weather conditions were carefully monitored for the desirable Goldilocks’ conditions of temperature, low winds and low humidity to allow the burn to take hold and not merely smolder but also minimize any risk of escape.

These conditions allow for fires that are more beneficial to the ecosystem. Low intensity, rapid moving fires that take out small trees and dead grass but leave mature trees and don’t scorch the soil. This is good fire and we need more of it.

The benefits of prescribed fire are clear: protection of communities and property by reducing fuels under manageable conditions as well as habitat enhancement for a wide variety of wildlife from ungulates to badgers to myriad birds, butterflies and more.

The Rocky Mountain Trench Ecosystem Restoration Program has been working with partners for over 20 years to help restore grassland and open forest ecosystems to the Rocky Mountain Trench. A broad coalition of land managers, ranchers, wildlife organizations and more, the Program has been at the fore-front of re-introducing fire onto the British Columbia landscape, working with groups like ?aq’am Band and BC Wildfire Service who conducted yesterday’s burn. The benefits are clear that thinning forests and prescribed burns are wise investments.

Recent wildfires in the area, including the Island Pond fire last year and Kragmont fire a couple years ago near Baynes Lake both were brought under control, in part, with the help of restoration treatments in the Trench. Wildfire is inevitable in this part of the world. It is up to us to be prepared for it.

The question is not “Why are we lighting fires” but rather why are we not lighting more?

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