Just as fire is an integral part of the forest, fire management is an integral part of forest management.
Fire management is the process of planning, preventing and fighting fires to protect people, property and the forest resource. It also involves fire to attain forestry, wildlife and land-use objectives.
An attitude shift
Canadian attitudes to fire have changed markedly over the years. For much of the 20th century, putting out fires (known as fire suppression) was the goal. Often costly to achieve, it was generally successful, though to the detriment of ecological values.
By the 1970s, recognition of fire’s ecological benefits had grown. Suppression, as forest managers were coming to realize, was not always necessary or desirable. Today, fire management includes a range of levels of fire suppression, from complete extinguishment to little or no intervention at all.
The decision to fight a fire or leave it to burn out naturally is based on a hierarchy of priorities set by the government agency responsible for fire management where the fire is burning. In most of Canada’s forests, provincial and territorial agencies have the responsibility for wildland fire management. Areas where federal government agencies are responsible include national parks and military bases.
High-priority areas for protection include residential areas, high-value commercial forests and recreational sites. Low-priority sites are generally wilderness parks and remote forests of limited economic value—although protection of rare habitat, culturally significant areas and similar values will influence suppression decisions.
The fire manager’s toolkit
In recent decades, Canadian researchers have greatly expanded our knowledge of wildland fire. This information and insight are giving forest managers a range of tools for assessing fire danger, predicting fires and responding as necessary.
- The comprehensive Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS) provides data and maps of fire danger conditions across Canada. Fire management agencies, forest companies and researchers are also increasingly using the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System (CFFDRS) to assess the role and impact of fire in forest ecosystems.
- Sustainable forest management requires analyzing a host of factors to evaluate options and assess the potential impacts of wildland fire across a range of forest values. Those values include timber supply, recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat. The Wildfire Threat Rating System (WTRS) assesses and maps four main components of fire risk: ignition, values at risk, suppression capability and expected fire behaviour. The system generates an overall fire-threat rating that helps forest managers determine how land-use decisions affect the fire threat in a given area.
- The Canadian Forest Service has developed a diverse set of fire models and applications. The modelling tools range from hourly predictions of fire growth in forest stands, to assessments of the fire-susceptibility of landscapes over several fire seasons or even over multiple years. These tools help fire managers make better decisions about how and where to allocate firefighting resources.
For example, the Canadian Fire Effects Model (CanFIRE) can be used to predict the behaviour of a wildland fire underway. This can help authorities plan daily suppression tactics. The Probabilistic Fire Analysis System (PFAS) is a long-range fire growth model that predicts the potential extent of a wildfire if it were allowed to grow unimpeded for weeks or even months. The model combines the probability of a fire’s spread with the probability of its survival up until rain or snow puts it out naturally.
- Other important resources for fire managers are programs designed to encourage individuals, businesses and communities to become involved in fire management.
For example, the FireSmart® initiative includes a risk reduction program for forestry companies. It identifies operational measures (for harvest scheduling, cutting, road layout, and regeneration and stand-tending activities) that will reduce the risk of damage from unwanted wildland fires. These measures are also aimed at mitigating the risk associated with prescribed fire.
Forest managers sometimes use prescribed burning to get rid of built-up fuel loads in forested areas. These planned and controlled burns are referred to as “prescribed fires.” They are a versatile management tool, often used to reduce the risk of large, uncontrollable fires breaking out.
Large fires are responsible for the greatest amount of area burned in Canada and they pose the highest risk to Canadians’ property, health and safety.
Prescribed burning is also used to improve wildlife habitat or meet other resource management objectives.
Meeting the challenges together
Forest managers seek to balance fire’s ecological benefits with the need to protect people’s safety, property and timber resources. Increasingly, Canadians realize that it is not economically possible or ecologically desirable to eliminate all wildland fires.
To establish a balanced approach, federal, provincial and territorial governments developed the Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy. The strategy charts the future of fire management, and includes measures to mitigate hazards and improve fire preparedness, response and recovery capabilities.
Fire management is a big responsibility, and firefighting can be an expensive proposition. Fortunately, Canada’s forest management agencies have a strong record of cooperation and are well organized to meet the challenges ahead.