Canada Observations

Since I have been in Canada, I have covered a significant amount of ground both with my feet and tires as well as my thinking. All throughout Alberta, up to the Northwest Territory, through the Continental Divide, and zigzagged across British Columbia I have accumulated a wide perspective of the vastness of this landscape. These travels, while seemingly random, had purpose, schedule, and meaning. This ping-pong course has been in the pursuit of seeking out the various mentalities and mindsets surrounding wildfires. Having only barely scraped the surface, I have spoken to structure and wildland firefighters, park and forest managers, prevention officers, threat specialists, municipal civic leaders, First Nation representatives, ecologists and other -ologists, homeowners and community champions, politicians, smokejumpers, protection consultants, and others. The results are several notebooks full of notes and surveys and muddled thoughts. 

On Fire History:

The fire history of western Canada is culmination of disturbance regimes determined by intermixing of climate, fuel, topography, and humans. Due to variation in climatic processes and topography, the formation of biogeoclimatic zones occurred. A biogeoclimatic zone is defined as “geographic area having similar patterns of energy flow, vegetation and soils as a result of a broadly homogenous macroclimate” or essentially similarities in plants, soils, and climates.  Zones interacted with biophysical and eco-cultural disturbances differently, as the frequency and severity of which these disturbances occurred. In many areas, wildfires are the predominant form of ecological disturbance that may spurn dynamic natural processes. The prevalence of wildfires varies because some areas may be more susceptible, i.e there are more ignitions from lightening or indigenous peoples, or there are significant fuel loads that may carry fires across a landscape. Wildfire disturbances gradually separated forests into two general life cycles,  “stand-replacing” and “stand-maintaining”, which has resulted some ecosystems at being resilient to fire and others being profound at regeneration after fire. To put this in context, much of Southern California chaparral types are stand-replacing as when there is a fire, everything is consumed and then grows back quickly. Whereas in the montane- Ponderosa Pine types of Colorado Springs, the large, old trees often have profound fire scars as they possess a resilience threshold to withstand fire. Other forest types, such as broadleaf, deciduous forest types maintain high levels of moisture and are proficient at reducing fires, but then are also proficient at regeneration as well. In Canada, both stand-replacing and stand-maintaining forest types saturate the landscape, and they often intermix. In forms such as the Boreal White and Black Spruce, the primary form of disturbance is crown fires which initiate a stand replacement. In the interior Douglas-fir and Larch forests, there is greater adaptability to fire, therefore resistance to stand-replacement.

These ecosystems are driven and sustained by wildfire, which may have originated by lightening and aboriginal peoples. There can be no mistake that people on the land contributed natural fire to the environment and helped formulate the baseline fire regimes for their respective forests. Reliant on their surroundings for sustenance, objectives such as increasing available, fresh grazing areas for game, replacing decrepit berry bushels with the next generation, and maintaining travel corridors for people and animals, indigenous burning is deeply cultural and ecologically beneficial. While many nations had different structures for burning - family-based, unanimous, or matriarchal - knowledge surrounding fire effects became extensive: when to burn, how to move the fire around, what areas to avoid burning. The approach is a holistic ecosystem management one that looks at the entire landscape.

The recent history of fire in Canada is a deviation from its past. European expansion into western areas brought with them ideals of Germany’s park-like forests devoid of fire. The management of these lands called for the removal of fire. Despite this, many ranchers and loggers continued to burn for decades, until societal and managerial concerns eventually suppressed this knowledge as well. E

On the travel side of things, Canada has been fairly straightforward because of its numerous similarities to the U.S and the overall kindness of the people here. All of the stereotypes about Canadian civility turned out to be true, and yes: they really do obsess over Tim Horton’s (I still cannot figure out heavens why). 

On the wildfire side, the project has focused on the dual approaches: proactive and reactionary methods. Proactive measures in this context refer to areas such as prescribed burning (active fire restoration), modified response (passive fire restoration), community protection and preparedness, and ongoing wildfire-related research to gain tools for the future. Reactionary methods are essentially just suppression - the hammer in the toolbox. 

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