Since 1990, “wildland fires” across Canada have consumed an average of 2.5 million hectares a year.
These fires occur in forests, shrub lands and grasslands. Some are uncontrolled wildfires started by lightning or human carelessness. A small number are prescribed fires set by authorized forest managers to mimic natural fire processes that renew and maintain healthy ecosystems.
Wildland fire management: balancing the bad and the good
Wildland fires present a challenge for forest management because they have the potential to be at once harmful and beneficial. They can threaten communities and destroy vast amounts of timber resources, resulting in costly losses.
However, wildland fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and important in many parts of Canada for maintaining the health and diversity of the forest. In this way, prescribed fires offer a valuable resource management tool for enhancing ecological conditions and eliminating excessive fuel build-up.
Not all wildland fires should (or can) be controlled. Forest agencies work to harness the force of natural fire to take advantage of its ecological benefits while at the same time limiting its potential damage and costs.
This makes fire control strategies a vital component of forest management and emergency management in Canada.
Understanding the complex phenomenon of wildland fire begins with understanding the basic physical aspects of fire and the ecological role of fire in forests and other wildland areas. Increasingly accurate assessments of the fire situation across Canada are now helping land managers use forest science to reduce fire risk and optimize the benefits.
Fire research by the CFS and its partners
The Canadian Forest Service (CFS) has been involved in fire research for decades. The CFS works with partners across the country to increase the knowledge base about wildland fires, and to improve the ability of authorities to predict and manage risks and benefits.
Key areas of activity include:
- studying wildland fire behaviour, including how fuel ignites, flame develops and fire spreads
- analyzing the ecological role of fire in Canada’s many different forests, and exploring how a changing climate will affect the occurrence and behaviour of fire and other forest disturbances
- assessing current fire activity by monitoring forest conditions, keeping track of current fires and evaluating the risk of new fires starting
- carrying out all aspects of wildland fire management—from developing prevention strategies to protect people, property and the forest resource, to using fire to attain forestry, wildlife and land-use objectives, and supporting the efforts of the jurisdictions responsible for firefighting
- Canada has about 9% of the world’s forests. Each year over the last 25 years, about 7,466 forest fires have occurred. The total area burned varies widely from year to year, but averages about 2.5 million hectares annually.
- Only 3% of all wildland fires that start each year in Canada grow to more than 200 hectares in area. However, these fires account for 97% of the total area burned across the country.
- Fire suppression costs over the last decade in Canada have ranged from about $500 million to $1 billion a year.