Wildfire prevention lagging in national parks, environment commissioner says

Wildfire prevention lagging in national parks, environment commissioner says

11 November 2013

published by www.montrealgazette.com

Canada — Parks Canada is throwing cold water on a new report by the federal environment commissioner that says the agency isn’t doing enough to prevent wildfires in its national spaces.

The issue is “fire targets,” which are meant to help ensure forest eco-systems remain healthy. Parks Canada is expected to do controlled burns through certain areas in order to recycle nutrients into the soil and encourage new plant growth. The burns also help prevent spontaneous fires from breaking out.

According to the environment commissioner, for the 35 national parks requiring controlled burns, 28 had enough data for experts to determine how much land should be carefully burned. But the controlled-burn targets had been achieved in only nine.

“Failure to achieve fire targets can lead to a buildup of fuel and the potential for catastrophic, high-intensity wildfires,” the report warns.

Interim Environment Commissioner Neil Maxwell said there is an elevated risk of forest fires with such fuel build-up, but noted Parks Canada is working toward removing fuel – such as dead trees – from its parks.

“This could be a risk to human life, but it’s not a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

Rob Prosper, Parks Canada’s vice-president of protected area establishment and conservation, said the agency is well on its way to meeting long-term targets for fire management.

“Parks Canada feels the linkage in the report between the targets and public safety is an oversimplification of that particular relationship,” he said. “When we look at fire management, public safety is always the first priority.”

“A target is not so much the key here; what is key is the strategic management of fire,” Prosper said.

The report said Parks Canada is facing a massive backlog of work and its resources are stretched thin.

The agency said it would invest about $15 million annually to ensure there is more action in ecological restoration projects, which include the active use of fire. But Maxwell said this is merely reallocating internal funds and that Parks Canada “did not make any specific commitment to close the fire targets.”

Fire management and fire targets have been around for about 40 years, according to David Martell, an associate professor with the University of Toronto’s faculty of forestry.

He studies fire management systems and says important factors, such as weather and timing, affect when and whether prescribed burns are plausible.

Data from the National Forestry Database show a definitive ebb and flow over the last 10 years of prescribed burns in parks.

“The fire cycle in most of the parks is well beyond 50 years,” he said. “So if a park doesn’t meet their target in the last 10 years, that tells me that they just need to burn more over the next 50 years.”

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