Nearly 80 years of fire suppression in Yoho National Park came to an end last week when Parks Canada intentionally set fire to more than 2000 hectares of forested land.
“There’s a large patch of dense forest,” said Rick Kubian, fire and vegitation specialist with Parks Canada. “That’s not what was here traditionally.”
It has only been over the last 20 or 30 years that experts have learned just how important fires are to the area’s ecosystem.
Parks Canada Fire Management staff began ignition operations for the Ottertail Creek prescribed burn on Sept. 11 when they burned in some barriers near Field, which had already been thinned the previous winter.
“That went absolutely perfectly,” said Kubian.
The full prescribed burn started on Sept. 12, with helicopters using a drip torch to pull fire up and away from risk areas such as the highway and populated areas.
“There’s not many places in the world doing burns like this,” said Kubian, adding how exciting the learning possibilities are with a project like this.
“We have a chance to track the spread, fuel consumption and fire intensity. We can compare results to the models we have, and even learn about the effect the pine beetles had.”
There are three goals with a prescribed burn such as this. They aim to create a barrier to protect the village of Field, eliminate the pine beetle, as well as the older trees that they feed on, and to make the area more wildlife friendly by diversifying the forest. In the end they will have a healthier mix of older and newer forest.
“A prescribed burn enables us to do so safely,” said Kubian. “Soon we will have a younger forest which is easier to manage in regards to wildfires.”
Kubian and other fire specialists watched the ignition from a ridge on Mount Hurd. The hillside lit up for a while before it started to fizzle out. After some deliberation by Kubian and his team they shifted focus to another hill, using aerial ignition devises to ignite the forest.
“Fire is always unpredictable,” said Kubian.
It took crews from all over to maintain the fire, including a six-man crew from Golden.
“We assisted in preparing the guard, and we burned off a good portion of the guard. We were also there in case things went awry,” said crew leader with the Golden Fire Jumpers, Andy Soulsby.
Soulsby and his crew spent five days at the Ottertail fire, which is still currently burning but is in a monitoring state.
“There’s a lot more preparation (for a prescribed burn),” said Soulsby, who has been with the Fire Jumpers for 15 years. “There’s always a strategy, but this involved ignition quite a bit.”
Yoho National Park sees a lot of tourists, so smoke management has been part of the discussion from the beginning of this process. The weather conditions allowed for good ventilation which brought the smoke upwards where it, for the most part, dispersed, however, Alberta Health Services put out a precautionary advisory for the communities of Banff, Bragg Creek, Calgary, Canmore, Cochrane, Cremonia, Exshaw, Kananaskis, Lake Louise, Morley, Sundre and surrounding areas.
“We had the choice of a little amount of smoke we can control on the shoulders of the tourism season, or a lot during a height of tourism in the area,” said Kubian. “But we might see some really nice sunsets in the next couple of days.”