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OPINION Saugstad: wildfires are part of life for the Boreal Forest

Victoria Day is the first real rainstorm of the year, and a welcome one at that.
The true nature of historic wildfires is hard to come by as nobody reported them.

May 22nd, Victoria Day, a long weekend, a day more often than not we expect to be the last snowstorm of the season. Not this year, Victoria Day is the first real rainstorm of the year, and a welcome one at that.  Enough rain to lay a licking on our wildfires, turn our brown and black countryside green, garden and field seeds into sprouts and a return to fresh air.

Hopefully this storm puts an end to all wildfires in NE BC and Alberta that have plagued us for the past couple weeks.  Rain certainly helps, but more work is needed to fully extinguish them so this doesn’t begin all over in a few weeks when things dry out once again.

Out of control wildfire, and especially those that threaten communities and/or human life always make the headlines, and especially these days when so much of our focus is about climate change and its effects, real or perceived.

“Never seen before”, Worst ever experience”, Most fires ever”, “Biggest we have ever seen” scream the headlines.  “Fossil fuels are responsible”, “Bad Forest practices the cause” blare others.  Lost in it all is our northern boral forest reality; wildfires are part of our forest’s life, that they are not going away and despite what the outcomes of climate change, fossil fuels consumption or forest management practices are, wildfire will continue, and with those fires, the creation of conditions needed to maintain our boreal forest ecosystems.

Wildfires are to boreal forests as sand dunes are to deserts.  If you got one, you got the other.  Some years conditions are much more conducive for major events, like this year, while for other years, not so much.  Bad windstorm years do the same in helping perpetuate deserts.

Did you know that June 1st marks the 73rd anniversary of the start of what is considered Canada’s largest single recorded wildfire (some say for the entire world)?   In 1950 the Chinchaga Fire started just east of our current Stoddart Creek Fire and eventually burned an estimated 1.4 – 1.7 million hectares (3.5 – 4.2 million acres).  It burned from the Rose Prairie area into northern Alberta near Keg River. Like our fires of the past two weeks, it was started by humans (stories vary between surveyors, land clearing or slash burning for forestry).  It was not fought and left to do its thing, to which it did.  It darkened the skies from the BC Peace all the way to New York City.

History says conditions for that fire where much the same as this year, a dry spring followed by hot and windy weather and poof – off it went until it burned itself out in October.  Although that was the biggest known fire, it this is not the only large fire from our past.  In 1958 much of northern BC and southern Yukon burned.  Anecdotal reports talk of a fire at the turn of the last century that started in Monkman Park and burned all the way to Grande Prairie.

The true nature of historic wildfires is hard to come by as nobody reported them.  Even after the European arrival, not much was reported or known, as fires that burned away from the few communities of the time were ignored.

in 1793 Sir Alexander Mackenzie reported that much of the Peace River area was grasslands with an abundance of bison. It is also known that the indigenous people of the time frequently burned the land to keep it in grass and the bison coming back so they could be hunted. Less is known how successful the indigenous people were in burning the boreal forest and keeping those fires small, as they lived a nomadic lifestyle and would move to another area while the fires burned and return as the forests greened-up and the wildlife returned.

From this last century we have come to learn that our most destructive fires in the boreal forest (northern BC and Alberta) happen during spring, May into early June.  Forests are not yet greened-up, and the fine fuels (dead grass and leaves and shrubs) are at their driest which make for the ease of fire spread.  All that is needed in these dry conditions is an ignition source (mostly human caused as lightning storms are relatively rare this early in the year), a hot day with humidities lower than the temperature, strong winds to fan the flames, just as we had this year.

Once these fires start and escape control at initial attack, nothing will stop them except a good rainstorm, or next fall’s snow.  They aren’t stopped by deciduous stands, farmers dry grass fields, mix woods or previously logged blocks. Even large rivers are no barrier.  Once they have the momentum and heat, all we can do is watch until they slow down and become more susceptible for control.

When they start near or adjacent to our communities, we all become susceptible of being burnt out of house and home. In May of 2011 Slave Lake burned and in May 2016, Fort McMurray. Both fires had the same conditions that the Stoddard Creek fire had; spring drought conditions, a “careless” human, a hot day with low humidity and strong winds.  We remember these fires as they burned communities, and easily forget that these same types of fires happen regularly in those areas away from our communities.

Even more unfortunately, we ignore the reality that these fires are part of the environment that we choose to live in. We can’t move our communities, but we can do better.

Most all are caused by humans and that can be minimized, just never eliminated.  Not easy as more and more of us become unconnected from the lands and the understanding just when these extreme fire hazard days occur.  We can also do better at minimizing/reducing the boreal forest fuels in and around our communities, but these are forever commitments that require substantial funding.  We can also be better prepared with more fire fighting forces and equipment ready at moments notice, but that to requires significant expenditures.

Or we can be ready to pick up and leave and come back when it is over to see what is left. After all, it is only a matter of time until it happens again.

PS: don’t believe the rhetoric that because we have earlier springs the fires are worse.  They are no worse than fires when we have a late spring with the same drought conditions.

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