Sign in to Banff to save it from the Canadian wildfires

The work of the loggers was unmistakable.

Surrounded by dense forests, the 81-acre, mile-long stretch of land on the mountainside has been stripped almost completely. Only scattered tree trunks remained, with a few skinny felled trees remaining. A road created by wooden carts visible under a light blanket of snow.

Logging trees is routine in a commercial forest – but this is in Banff, Canada’s most famous national park. Cut neatly was once unthinkable in this green gem of the Canadian Rockies, where there was a long-standing policy of strictly suppressing all fires and preserving every tree.

But faced with the growing threat of wildfires, national park caretakers are increasingly turning to logging to create a firefighting force: a buffer zone to prevent wildfires from spreading to the rest of the country. parks and neighboring towns.

“If you have an intense, fast-moving wildfire, this brings giving managers fire options.” soft floor.

Still reeling from last year’s worst wildfire season on record, Canada is now facing the rapid onset of a new wildfire season. The so-called zombie fires, smoldering in the snow-covered ground during the winter, have erupted and forced thousands of people to flee affected cities and towns in Western Canada.

After the warmest winter in Canada’s history, communities near forests are preparing for another extreme wildfire season and for a future increasingly prone to wildfires due to climate change.

Long-planned measures to protect against wildfires – such as firefighters in Alberta’s Banff Park and other projects in the town of Banff – have become more urgent.

Last year, dozens of fires broke out, mostly caused by lightning, in Banff and two adjacent national parks, including three fires near the new fire station. They were quickly extinguished.

But across Alberta, the impact of last year’s record wildfire season was “huge,” said Katherine Severson, director of emergency services in the town of Banff.

The growing number of fires in sparsely populated areas of Canada has affected not only neighboring communities but also those far away, with the thick smoke they create drifting into the region. south of Canada and into the United States.

“That is now the norm — every day, cities and towns are making decisions about whether they can have outdoor activities because of the smoke,” Ms. Severson said.

Last year, wildfires burned 18.5 million hectares, or 46 million acres, of land in Canada, more than doubling the previous record set two decades ago and sending smoke as far as Europe. Fires are spreading uncontrollably across the country, not only in Western provinces accustomed to wildfires but also in Quebec and the Maritimes, where fires of this magnitude are rare.

This spring, much of Alberta is facing drought. In the Rockies, snowfall amounts were “exceptionally low,” it said John Pomeroya hydrologist near Banff and director of the Global Water Futures Program.

“Considering this time of year, it looks worse than last year,” Mr. Pomeroy said. “But I qualify that by saying that many things can change. Last year, we also suffered from record heat and lack of rain.”

He said extreme heat and unusual weather patterns contributed to the conditions that led to last year’s record wildfire season. Michael Flanniganan expert in fire management at Thompson River College in British Columbia.

“Last year was truly an exception,” Mr. Flannigan said. “So statistically, it’s unlikely you’ll get another exception.”

Still, Flannigan said, wildfire agencies across the country — which traditionally hire only during wildfire season and include college students working in the summer — are starting to hire. Use experts year-round as the bushfire season lengthens.

In British Columbia, Mr. Flannigan said some of the “overwintering zombie fires” were so large that fire crews were unable to extinguish them along their perimeter and they are now burning fiercely.

“The wildfire season ended so late last year that they didn’t have time to clean up as much as they would have liked,” he said.

In northern Alberta, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation reserve is one of many communities increasing their firefighting capacity in the face of the growing wildfire threat. The city’s fire department now has 20 volunteers, up from seven last year, said Shane Bair, fire chief and director of emergency services.

Last year, a human-caused fire on a farm inside the reserve burned 157 acres of land and came within half a kilometer, or 540 yards, of homes. Residents of 23 homes were evacuated as firefighters struggled to control the blaze caused by strong winds and extremely dry conditions, Bair said.

To reduce the risk of recurrence, Mr Bair’s team carried out four controlled burns on the reserve this year to remove flammable grass in large, open areas.

“It hadn’t burned in a few years so we really wanted to get that part done,” he said. “We see this as a risky area with heavy traffic.”

The community had hoped to do more controlled burns but was limited by the mild winter, he said. Snow melts quickly and little water is absorbed into the ground.

“Typically, we want to burn those burns while there is still snow on the ground so our windows are very small,” Mr. Bair said.

In the town of Banff, officials cut down trees in forested areas on the edge of the community to make them less dense and more flammable. Embers from widespread fires can travel two kilometers or 1.2 miles through the air, burning areas across bodies of water, fire chief Russ Geyer said.

Firefighters must protect both residents and visitors to the town of Banff, where the population of 9,000 can swell to 40,000 on summer weekends.

Banff National Park — with its majestic mountains, turquoise lakes, glaciers and abundant wildlife — is by far Canada’s most popular national park, attracting more than 4 million visitors each year from all over the world.

In the town of Banff, Mr. Geyer said, fire officials are encouraging homeowners to make their homes safer by pruning low conifer branches, installing sprinklers and upgrading wooden roofs. with fireproof materials, Mr. Geyer said, adding that some initiatives began two decades ago. formerly.

“We started slowly and people saw it as something we were doing, but it wasn’t that urgent,” Mr. Geyer said.

In recent years, a review of how forests are managed against wildfires has also been underway.

At Banff National Park, established in 1885 and the oldest park in Canada, officials until 1983 followed a strict policy of fire suppression, instead of taking significant steps to prevent fires. important to prevent or manage fires.

The result now is a landscape of dense forests dominated by conifers, which are extremely flammable.

Mr. Tavernini, a vegetation and fire expert at Parks Canada, said historical photos of the area before the park was established show a wider variety of trees and more open spaces. He said lightning and controlled burns by local indigenous people regularly cause forests to thin.

In recent years, park officials have conducted controlled burns. But perhaps none is as large and visually impressive as the 81-acre fire station, completed last year, along the main drag inside Banff park.

An even larger fire station was completed this winter in adjacent Yoho National Park. A third development – ​​near Lake Louise, one of Banff’s most popular sites – could get underway later this year.

A logging company was hired to cut down trees at the first two locations, undertaking the projects in exchange for wood. Parks Canada also earned a total of C$80,000 from selling logged timber to the two fire departments, said Shelly Tamelin, project manager for wildfire risk reduction at Parks Canada.

Clearing flammable conifers, firefighters are designed to prevent the fire from spreading beyond them. They also provide staging areas for firefighters to directly attack fires by drawing water from nearby ponds.

At the same time, park officials recognize the need to travel with caution and clear routes within beloved national parks.

“We are trying to choose areas where we have to remove the least amount of trees to create the most open space,” Ms. Tamelin said.


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