Some of the technology to fight wildfires was first developed almost a century ago. The province has used this technology for many decades to prevent and extinguish wildfires in Ontario parks and other protected areas.
Over time, we discovered something interesting. Aggressive firefighting did not stop wildfires. He just postponed them.
We needed a strategy that protected people and property, but also kept forests strong and healthy.
Resistance is useless
Woodland Caribou, Ontario’s sixth largest provincial park, is a prime example of how wildfires can bolster ecological integrity. Located between Kenora, Red Lake and the Manitoba border, this natural paradise protects nearly half a million hectares of boreal forest.
Haven Lake area after a wildfire in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park
In Woodland Caribou, wildfires are never more than a storm away. Every year almost 15,000 hectares of the park burn. That’s an area the size of Presqu’ile, Sandbanks, Pinery, Rondeau, Wasaga Beach, Bronte Creek, Arrowhead, Darlington, MacGregor Point, Earl Rowe and Wheatley provincial parks all combined!
“We get a lot of hot, dry air from the prairies and a lot of lightning strikes,” says park biologist Christine Hague. “So we just burned out.”
In fact, this area has one of the highest densities of fires caused by lightning in the province.
Nothing lives forever
Lightning causes 99% of the park’s fires. These fires typically burn an entire stand, a subsection of the forest where all the trees are of approximately the same condition and age. A forest untouched by man would be a mosaic of stands.
Woodland Caribou is dominated by stands of Jack Pine. These fast-growing but short-lived trees have a natural lifespan of 50 to 100 years. Jack Pines need fire to complete their life cycle. Its tightly closed cones only release their seeds when exposed to high temperatures.
Jack Pine cones that require fire to open and release seeds
Preventing and extinguishing fires artificially prolongs the life of certain parts of the forest, such as putting them on life support. And it’s a pretty poor quality of life. Trees are vulnerable to disease and damage. Without fire to open the cones, trees in an aging stand weaken and fall. Animal life moves. Invasive species take hold. Other trees, such as birch, replace Jack Pines.
Over time, the once healthy Jack Pine forest disappears, leaving a mixed forest in its place.
Plan for the future
Ontario Parks works with Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) to manage wildfires so they can play their natural role in the life cycles of our protected spaces.
Did you know that every wildfire in Ontario is assessed to measure its potential impacts? See the wildfire management strategy
They work to identify areas that need renovation and areas that need protection. Setting these priorities early allows parks and AFFES to make good decisions quickly.
AFFES protects an advanced camp with sprinklers
When a wildfire threatens people and property, fire crews put it out or move it away. In areas where nature can take its course, we simply monitor the fire. This allows rich nutrients trapped in needles, leaves, and dead fallen logs to be released.
The new approach aims to restore ecological integrity through the use of fire.
This does not surprise local indigenous communities. Respect and gratitude for fire are woven through Anishinaabe stories and language. Fire is as natural and inevitable as the change of seasons.
In the words of the late Elder Whitehead Moose, Pikangikum First Nation, “The Creator has a match and that match is the thunderbird. He brings that match to earth when the forest grows old and can no longer grow.
“Then the thunderbird comes to earth. After burning the forest, new growth begins.”
Just as spring follows winter, fire revives the earth. It may look like a charred wasteland, but it greens up quickly.
After a few days, bright green flashes appear. Shoots emerge from burnt birch trees.
Days or weeks after a fire.
Within weeks, the forest floor becomes a sea of lush new plants and shrubs.
In a few months, Jack Pine seedlings are appearing. The birch saplings and other vegetation are already waist-high.
Left: Jack Pine seedlings begin to grow the first year after the fire.
Right: Two-year-old Jack Pine seedlings
“It’s really beautiful,” says Christine. “After a burn, an incredible amount of wildflowers grow. Blueberries and raspberries are booming.”
Blueberries abound after a fire
A year later, the area is transformed. Jack Pine seedlings are an inch higher. Fungi and insects fell the burned trees. The insect-foraging hammer of the black-backed woodpecker fills the air.
Fungi that fell burned trees
Wildlife returns to the area. The first to enter are the elk and the rabbits. They are followed by predators such as the marten, the lynx, the wolf and the bear.
As the decades pass, the Jack Pines grow larger and the lichen becomes thick. That’s when the caribou arrive.
Black-backed Woodpeckers Abound After Fire
A few decades later, the pine forest begins to decompose, waiting for the lightning strike to start the cycle again.
In case of fire
Not all fires can be monitored and left to achieve ecological benefits.
“Public safety is absolutely the first priority,” Christine says. “If an area of a park is not safe for travel and is threatened by a wildfire, or even heavy smoke, that area may be evacuated and closed to travel.”
If a fire threatens life safety or property, FireRanger crews and water tankers can dispatch
Information about closed areas is posted on the Ontario Parks website and on social media. The province also has an interactive map where you can find real-time updates on active fires.
The burning question
Understanding the benefits of wildfires does not mean the end of campfire bans.
Obeying fire bans keeps everyone safe. Humans have given Mother Nature more than enough “help” in that regard.
“If you respect the fire, the fire will be good to you. It will keep you warm on cold days. But you also have to have respect and be careful with fire. You have to use it wisely. If you use it wisely, it will keep you going. If not, he will burn all your possessions.” —Elder Solomon Turtle, Pikangikum First Nation