Burning not always bad

by Bruce Ranta | July 4, 2023
forest fire

Most of us are familiar with the United States Forest Service fire prevention campaign in which Smokey the Bear tells us, “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Most of the time, wildfires started by careless humans are bad — the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry says about half of all wildland fires in Ontario are caused by people — but the message that forest fires are entirely bad is simply not true.

Fires often necessary

In many forests, fires are a natural and necessary part of the growth process and have a diverse array of characteristics. The size, number, frequency and intensity of forest fire depend on many factors, including the type of forest the fire has for fuel. The largest and most fire-prone forest type in Ontario is the boreal forest, a region with endless tracts of land dominated by conifers, especially spruce and jack pine. More than two-thirds of Ontario forest is boreal.

Not all northern Ontario is boreal forest, however. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest (GLSL) can be found in central and ‘southern’ parts of the north. Typically, deciduous trees like oak and maple are mixed with conifers like red and white pine.

The fire cycle

A fire cycle is defined as the average number of years needed to burn an area equal in size to a particular area under study. The fire cycle of the GLSL is estimated to be 100 to 350 years. Whether it’s 50, 100 or 350 years, that’s a lot of burning. Depending on one’s perspective, 50 to 350 years can be a long time – or the blink of an eye. 

While forest fires are often destructive, life threatening and outside of winter, a constant concern, fire management requires an appreciation of the benefits and positive impacts of fire.

Many populations of wildlife are fire dependent. For example, sharptailed grouse populations can explode shortly after a big fire. Spruce grouse thrive in thick stands of young, fire origin jack pine. Moose and caribou habitats are dependent on fire, but on different time scales. About five years after a big burn and for another 15 to 25, big burns chock full of browse can be moose factories. As the forest ages, there’s less and less to browse. In some stands, the forest floor becomes carpeted with lichens, a winter food staple of caribou. Sixty years after a fire, there’s more caribou than moose habitat. Over time, browse and lichen abundance decline. Moose and caribou become few and farbetween. Wildfire renews the cycle.

In a fire-driven ecosystem, plants and animals have evolved with and depend on fire. If fire were to be eliminated, many species, like the iconic beaver, would decline. Some might even become extirpated from the area. Blowdowns and logging can also renew the forest, but these are mechanical, not chemical effects and overall, their impact is relatively insignificant.

In a cultural context

Living with and managing wildfires is difficult. Despite positives, forest fires are almost universally viewed negatively. “Fire destroyed the forest” or “a catastrophic fire is raging in the north” are common messages. This is not unreasonable ― the fear of uncontrolled fire and its consequences is borne of societal priorities. Fighting forest fires is a big business and protecting cities, towns, and wildlife habitats is expensive.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement on wildfire management practices. In 2008, Pulp & Paper Canada (P&P) issued a paper called “Curse You, Smokey the Bear.” P&P claimed “the unquestionable doctrine of preventing all and any forest fires at all costs” had led to a drastic change in the dynamic of forest growth and maintenance. “Rather than the millennium old cycles of periodic burning and purging, a century of relentless fire suppression across North America left intact huge sprawls of…forests matted in deep, dry underbrush.”

Fires that would normally have been a cleansing ground fire, were now transmogrifying into catastrophic firestorms. Many believe this is what we continue to witness.

Next steps

In Ontario, policy changes recognizing the importance and role of forest fires in managing and maintaining forest ecosystems, is happening.

“Back in 2013, the provincial government updated their approach to wildland fire management to explicitly recognize the benefits of fire to wildlife and decided to allow certain fires to burn if no human values (property, safety, etc.) are being threatened,” Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters Policy Manager Mark Ryckman said.

It’s a good start, but more research and better mitigative techniques are needed. Forest fires are inevitable and regardless of how desirable they may be, they remain a danger. On the forest perimeter of communities, building and maintaining fire breaks and growing fire-resistant forest stands are long-term possibilities.

In the short term, it seems to me the priority should be to continuously improve how forest fires are fought by learning from successes — and failures — and changing practices accordingly. While no doubt scary, forest fires are both inevitable and much-needed.

Originally published in the July 2022 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS

Click here for more outdoors news

Sign up for our mailing list

indicates required
Email format