The NWT hasn’t undertaken any significant prescribed burns to manage forest fires in more than 20 years – but the territory’s wildfire operations manager says research shows these fireguards may offer the best protection.
At the first wildfire briefing of the 2021 season, Richard Olsen said the territory’s traditional use of fire over the past few decades has been to manage active fires: burning fuel around the perimeter of a fire to slow its growth or force it to burn out, or using fireguards to protect buildings or infrastructure from wildfires.
A fireguard is an area in the path of a wildfire where the fuel has been removed – usually through a controlled burn to remove the existing vegetation and trees that might otherwise catch fire uncontrollably later.
“Some of these big forest stands near communities are really where the risk lies,” Olsen said. “The scientific research is really showing that we’ve got to start looking at fireguards as the be-all, end-all of protection.
“We need to start looking at a landscape-level approach to dealing with mitigating risk to communities.”
Olsen said one of the biggest things communities can do to mitigate wildfire risk is harvest “problem fuels” like coniferous trees – spruce and jack pine, for example – and replace them with deciduous trees like aspen, which burn at a lower intensity and are easier to control.
A second strategy involves using controlled burns to remove “dead, downed, woody debris that’s on the forest floors” and thin forests bordering communities so they are “not as heavily stocked.”
“We need to look almost 10 or 20 kilometres around a community at these forest stands and even some of the grassland areas that, if a fire started, could act as wicks that would just pull a fire into a community and expose the community to risk,” Olsen said.
“Rather than waiting for a fire to come into a community, maybe we need to start thinking about putting a little bit of fire around communities to break up the continuity and reduce the fuel loads, so we don’t end up with one big mass of fires as a result of the fuel that exists.”