Grass emerges from a recent burn area along Highway 3. Photo: Bill Braden
What happens to the fire breaks and dozer guards that scar the NWT’s landscape when wildfires finally leave our communities alone?
Parks Canada has staff whose job is to come in, assess the damage, and figure out how to help nature heal.
Marcia Dewandel spent the past two weeks on assignment to help that work outside Fort Smith, where Parks Canada holds responsibility for the giant Wood Buffalo National Park – the scene of many fires this summer.
Dewandel described to Cabin Radio how experts work out “prescriptions” for each patch of damaged land, then set about gradually restoring things to some kind of natural state.
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This interview was recorded on September 19, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Are you ordinarily a restoration specialist? Do you travel from dozer guard to dozer guard?
Marcia Dewandel: No – well, I don’t travel to do it, but I am a restoration specialist out of Jasper National Park, yes.
What does that involve at Jasper National Park?
We have a team of field techs in the summertime and we focus on non-native veg management in the park and dealing with disturbed sites. When we have any kinds of construction project, we help with the reclamation of those sites to bring those areas back to as close to the pre-disturbed condition. We do a lot of seeding, tree planting and transplanting as well.
How long have you been doing that?
It’s been about four and a half years.
Was your heart set on this?
It was, yes. My background is resource management. I’ve been in the field itself for about 25 years.
I promise this is my last tangential question. When you mention non-native species management, give me an example of that. What might turn up that you’d have to deal with and what would you do?
In a busy place like Jasper, there’s a number of different vectors that will bring in invasive species, like highway corridors and train tracks, and then people in general. There are actually plants in Alberta that we are mandated to control – something like a spotted knapweed, we have to pull and remove them from the landscape as best as we can. We have what’s called an integrated pest management plan, and we treat species accordingly.
So we take all of those skills and then you rock up outside Fort Smith, where we have just sent bulldozers through acre after acre of scenery. And you’ve got two weeks to restore it.
I’m so happy that someone is interested in this part. The fire is such a big beast, but reclamation is so important. I’m not the only one on this, there were specialists before me that came up to start the plan. When I arrived for my two-week period here I had a draft plan to follow.
All of those dozer guards, safety zones and helipads have been inventoried throughout the entire fire area. I have that in front of me on maps. I was able to go visit the majority of these sites to get an idea of what kind of landscape they were in, where they were travelling through, was there any water around, what they look like, how much disturbance was there.
Each one of the dozer guards and helipads has what we call a prescription attached to it. That prescription tells us, “This dozer guard is in this kind of landscape, there seems to be this much disturbance, this is what we need to do to help it along so it can restore itself to somewhat of a natural landscape.” That is our goal.
Residents are coming home to a vastly changed landscape. To what extent do you think about that, when you’re doing your job?
If I were driving in here and I was looking out my car window, more than anything right now I would probably see the fire and the effects of the fire. These lines that allowed the fire staff to manage the fire? Many of them are a little farther in, and you wouldn’t really see a lot of them unless you took some of these back roads or decided to venture off the highway and such.
It makes me feel good to be able to try to put back some of the disturbances that we’ve had to make to manage this fire, to put them back to what they were before – or as close to what they were before.
How do you start the process? What do you do in a day to help a dozer guard start to think about being a part of a natural landscape again?
Let’s define what a dozer guard is. It’s an area that has been cleared, very much like a roadway. It’s not necessarily linear. And all the organic matter on top, all of the grasses and the shrubs and any of the soil, has been removed down to what we call mineral soil. Fire doesn’t like mineral soil. It can’t really take any purchase on mineral soil and the idea is that you will stop a fire once it hits that sort of soil. It’s a protective barrier.
When you come across these areas with just mineral soil, the goal is to bring that organic matter back. That’s the first thing you want to do. If that mineral soil has been compacted in any way, it has to be loosened up first and decompacted. Most of these guards have been built by machines, so that berm of organic matter that has been left needs to be pulled back. All the organic matter with all those valuable seeds – and some of the shrubbery and what we call coarse, woody debris, which basically will become food for the plants to thrive on – is pulled back onto that mineral soil base. That’s step one.
You have to make sure, too, that all of that wood on top is pushed flush with the surface so it decomposes over time. There are smaller prescriptions we can also do that involve seeding. There are native grasses up here and we’ve purchased native seed so we can spread some of that native seed in the area, to help give that area a bit of a jump-start. And then there’s also transplanting: you can take shrubs and small saplings from the area and transplant them in. You can go as far as to do willow staking in wetter areas.
We’ve even had staff collecting fireweed seeds – we’ll take those seeds and we’ll spread them on the landscape. Anything that gives the landscape some help to restore.
Do you feel more like a doctor or an architect doing that?
It’s a little bit of both. It’s very much a science, as well, but it’s a lot of exploration and trial-and-error. Every landscape is quite different. It is design, science, understanding, and just trying to work together with the environment you have, understanding how those processes work.
What are the timescales we’re talking about here? When should we expect to be able to look at a dozer guard and say, ‘Oh look, some nature’?
You know, it’s quite amazing. In general, when you do any restoration project, we’re talking years before you see something that vaguely resembles the environment prior. But if you travel along the area right now, along some of the roadways where the fire has been close – even in the ditches, you can see that really, really bright green grass that comes up. That’s almost immediate.
What happens is – if the fire is not too severe, and it whips through an area – it doesn’t burn down deep. So any of these grasses that have what we call rhizomes, and they’re not affected underneath, they’ll grow right away because all the competition on top is gone. They have more access to the sun and they come up right away. I mean the fire just came through here, literally 10 days ago, and we’ve got a bed of this wonderful, green, native grass.
Some species come up really quick, others will take some time. And then, of course, you’ll see a beautiful fireweed come up. That’s another species that does very well after a fire, hence its name.
The whole point of these dozer guards was to stop a fire coming through. Is there an element of your work that tries to restore these in a way that they still serve that purpose for future years?
That comes with the planning. A lot of these guards that have been inventoried, there has to be some discussion around whether or not, given their location on the landscape, they might serve as a guard in the future. Some of them will not, for sure. Others might fit that role. That has yet to be determined. If they do need to remain as a future guard, the prescription attached to that reclamation will be different. We won’t be putting, for example, big pieces of coarse, woody debris on top, we’ll just have to make it a little more accessible. Every guard has its different classification and prescription.
Will there be someone after you later this month? How far down the line do we go, in terms of handling from person to person, before it’s just left to do its own thing?
Yes, there is someone that will come in after me. That I know for sure. And then into the future, there is someone that will oversee that, do some monitoring and follow up to see how successful our reclamation efforts were – and whether or not there’s more work that needs to be done.