Wildfire: A natural part of Alberta’s landscape

Last week saw wildfire on the front page of newspapers and the top of television newscasts – again.

This time though, it wasn’t fire’s destructive nature that got the headlines, it was its ability to promote re-growth.

Cordy Tymstra, wildfire science co-ordinator with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), took media on a tour of an area 100 kilometres north of Fort McMurray that was burned by the Richardson wildfire last summer to show them how wildfire is a natural part of Alberta’s forest ecosystem.

Cordy Tymstra explains forest regrowth after wildfire to media

Cordy Tymstra explains forest regrowth after wildfire to media

The Richardson wildfire, the second largest in Alberta’s recorded history, started in mid May of 2011 and burned over 550,000 hectares of northern boreal forest until it was fully extinguished until January of 2012.

“It’s a really well-designed forest that literally embraces fire, and the whole plant and animal community does too,”  Tymstra told the Edmonton Journal.

In fact, many plant species have already returned to the area that had been blackened by wildfire just a year earlier.  Fire recycles nutrients, helps plants reproduce, and creates a mosaic of vegetation types that provides habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Without fire, the landscape loses diversity.  Trees encroach on meadows, shrubland and open grassy areas.  Moose, deer, bear and other species that favour open spaces begin to lose habitat.

When a wildfire poses no threat to communities or resources, it may be allowed to burn naturally under careful observation of experienced fire managers.  This allows for the many benefits of fire to be re-introduced in Alberta’s forest in a controlled manner.  The Richardson wildfire was a good example of this policy.

The difficulty, however, has been convincing the public that fire is part of “natural evolvement of the forest and it has to happen,” said Geoffrey Driscoll, a wildlife information officer, in an interview with the Edmonton Journal.  “When a fire does come through it doesn’t burn everything – it’s not a moonscape afterwards. The boreal forest without fire is like the rainforest without rain,” he said to the newspaper.

Edmonton Journal photo gallery of the tour.

Did you know: There are really only two ways that wildfires start in Alberta, by lightning or by human-causes.  The Richardson wildfire’s cause is undetermined, but wildfire investigators can virtually rule out lightning as its cause.  This means that it was more than likely human-caused and therefore 100 per cent preventable.

If you spot a wildfire, call 310-FIRE (3473).

Keep up-to-date on Alberta’s wildfire situation by following Alberta Wildfire Info on Facebook, or @ABGovWildfire on Twitter.

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