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Canada’s forests will recover from wildfires — but they won’t be the same

The Current19:41Bringing scorched lands back to life

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This year’s wildfire season in Canada is on track to destroy four times more land than any previous year on record, but researchers say nature is resilient and regeneration is still possible. 

Understory plants — grasses, flowers, purple fireweed and even some aspen shoots — are already rising up through the barren landscapes and charred trees of the aftermath.

That’s because fire is part of the natural cycle and vegetation can grow back very quickly, says Edward Struzik, author of Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire.

“It’s a natural process because really our forest — the boreal forest — is born to burn,” he told The Current guest host Anthony Germain. 

But there’s a difference between “born to burn” and the intensity of the fires we’re seeing this summer, he said. 

Climate change is increasing the amount of out-of-control wildfires across the country, and their severity combined with heat domes and droughts means forests aren’t able to regenerate the same way they used to, said Struzik. 

Regrowth will happen, but forests will change

Ellen Whitman, a forest fire research scientist with Natural Resources Canada, is optimistic the ravaged forests will come back, just not in the same way as before. 

“When we have very, very big fire years like this one, there are some shifts that can occur,” she said.

A team of researchers surveys a burned landscape in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2015, a year after the most major fire in a decade.
A researcher surveys the aftermath of a major wildfire in Wood Buffalo National Park, which is located in northern Alberta. (Ellen Whitman/Natural Resources Canada)

In the boreal landscapes hit hardest by this season’s wildfires, Whitman suspects more fire-resilient vegetation will take the place of conifer trees with needle leaves and cones.

Conifer trees take much longer to recover after fires, she said, so they’re often unable to develop their seed banks or seal them up in a cone before another fire comes in and wipes out the beginnings of a new forest.

“We might instead expect to see more of an open, low-density forest with a lot of broad leaves or even very few trees,” said Whitman. 

“But if we have that particular shift, you can think about some species benefiting and some species not doing so well.”

Wood bison, buffalo and moose do really well with the shift toward a more open, grassy landscape, but caribou do not, she said.

Conservation strategies

According to Struzik, it’s unlikely the southern end of Canada’s boreal forest will survive this warming.

Instead of replanting conifer trees there, he would rather see resources spent restoring wetlands, which act as natural fire barriers and offer refuge for animals and birds. 

Prescribed burns are also important and effective fire management strategies. But Struzik said we don’t perform them nearly enough, out of fear that a flawed burn could unintentionally set an entire region aflame, or put a lot of vulnerable people in harm’s way.

“The risks are there, but I think the risks are greater if we don’t do it,” he said. 

“We tend not to want to do it, but the people that are leading the charge are Indigenous people — many of them in British Columbia — and these Indigenous communities have already seen the benefits,” Struzik said. 

A man and a woman in a regenerating forest
Researchers assess the understory of forest in northern Alberta four years after the Richardson Fire burned over 700,000 hectares of boreal forest. (Edward Struzik)

Indigenous-led wildfire restoration

Struzik says an Indigenous elder taught him about the “born to burn” concept.

“Some time ago he said, ‘You know, you see that spruce tree with the boughs hanging down to the grass? It’s old, it can’t hold its bough up any longer and it’s asking fire to come burn me so that I can produce new young.’ I think that really sums it up very eloquently,” he said.

Angela Kane, CEO of the Secwepemcúl’ecw Restoration and Stewardship Society (SRSS) near Kamloops, B.C., says Indigenous knowledge systems and approaches to forest management can be a great help when dealing with the aftermath of wildfires.

In 2017, nearly 200,000 hectares of Secwépemc territory were so badly burned in the Elephant Hill wildfire that natural regrowth proved impossible. 

As a response, eight Secwépemc communities came together to discuss the importance of wildfire recovery from an Indigenous perspective. Their focus is on putting trees back in the forest for a balanced ecological purpose rather than an economic purpose, said Kane. 

The SSRS works with Indigenous communities to identify which tree, plant and animal species to put back onto the land after a wildfire so that forest systems can return to their historical roots. They consider cultural values and basic welfare when it comes to deciding which medicines, food sources and wildlife habitats to prioritize. 

Over the last four years, Kane said the SSRS has established a positive working partnership with the provincial government. 

Authorities have been receptive to Indigenous leadership, perspectives, ideas and history, she said, but other first nations throughout B.C. have encountered resistance.

“[They] don’t have the same level of conversation or relationship that we have, and something that we’re really trying to promote throughout the province is how important that connection is,” she said.

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