Course:CONS200/2023WT2/Wildfire impacts on the boreal forests in Canada

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Map of the Canadian boreal forest.

Stretching from the west to the east of the continent, the boreal forest of Canada is one of the largest biogeoclimatic zones on earth, approximately 270 million hectares in area. [1] A key disturbance regime in the boreal forest is wildfire: impacting carbon cycling, forest structure, and species composition.[2] The large forested area is important for numerous goods and services, with values from environmental to economic to spiritual.[3] Due to factors of global climate change in addition to forest management practices, the temporal and spatial characteristics of this disturbance regime are also changing.[2] The hotter and drier climate of the boreal forest, altered by climate change, may result in a longer fire season and greater probability of fires.[4] Large scale fires seen today in the boreal forest do not resemble historical disturbance, which suggests a variety of small to large scale fires with patches of unburned or partially burned biomass, rather than frequent large scale stand initiating fires.[3] As continued resource use of the boreal forest occurs, understanding the fire disturbance regime and how it has changed over centuries is important for sustainable management in the future.[5]

Ecological and environmental significance:

Black spruce dominant stand in Canadian boreal forest.

The boreal forest zone is the most northern forest zone in Canada. The boreal forest covers 270 million hectares of land in Canada and represents 32% of the global forest cover.[6] [7] The boreal zone climate consists of cool, short summers with long cold winters, and moderate amounts of precipitation throughout the year[7]. A significant portion of Canada’s terrestrial biodiversity is found in the boreal forest zone.[8] The main tree species of this forest region are spruce, fir, pine, and tamarack and are well adapted to cold harsh climates.[9] Balsam poplar, birch and trembling aspen are also found in this zone as well as many shrub species and are important food sources for animals in the boreal forest.[9] The boreal forest is habitat for many large mammal species including ungulates like moose and woodland caribou, and predators such as grizzly and black bears and wolves.[9] Smaller animals such as snowshoe hares and beavers play important roles in these ecosystems.[9] Further, the boreal forest provides important migratory bird habitat for many species.[6] The boreal zone provides important ecosystem services including climate regulation, freshwater filtration, nutrient cycling, flood regulation, and soil formation.[7] Forest fire, insect infestation, and disease are the major natural disturbances that affect boreal forests in Canada.[6] Fire plays an important role in many parts of the boreal forest zone. Naturally occurring fire ensures plant diversity and productivity in ecosystems and helps to cycle nutrients and reduces soil organic layer thickness allowing for different plants to regenerate.[8] Forest fires in the boreal zone are typically stand replacing and result in even aged regeneration of forests, although sites can be slow to regenerate due to acidic, infertile, or very wet soils.[8] Disturbance type and intensity will impact the type of forest stand that is able to regenerate in the boreal zone.[8] Wildfire has an impact on habitat for many species because it can kill mature trees, scorch soil organic matter and change the composition of the understory.[10] This can cause a reduction of habitat, protection and food for animals who live in this zone and can increase predation for certain species.[10]

Economic value:

Approximately 96% of the boreal zone is provincial, territorial, federal or indigenous land, but only about 8% is protected through various parks and protected areas.[7] The boreal zone is incredibly important for natural resource extraction in Canada. This zone contains forestry, mineral, oil and gas and peat resources.[6] Further, the boreal region of Quebec has many hydroelectric dams that produce a significant source of electricity, and the southern reaches of the boreal region contain important agricultural lands.[6] Less than 40% of the boreal forest in Canada is used for industrial forestry and is mostly concentrated in the southern boreal forest.[8] A significant amount of Canada's pulp and paper and timber products come from the southern boreal zone.[7] The more northern regions of the boreal forest are challenging to harvest due to difficult terrain, limited infrastructure, harsh conditions limiting tree growth and slow regeneration of stands.[11]

Indigenous people have lived in and used resources from the boreal zone for thousands of years.[7] Indigenous people living in the boreal zone use the resources of this zone for sustenance and cultural practices and maintain a close relationship with the land.[12] Many plant species in the boreal forest zone are of cultural and medicinal importance to the indigenous people who live in this region.[13] Fire has traditionally been used as a tool for managing vegetation and animal populations in the boreal region by indigenous people, but these practices have largely been suppressed by western colonization.[7]

Indigenous influence

Historical use of land by Indigenous peoples:

Aboriginal peoples in Canada have an extensive history of fire use in boreal forests.[14] The use of fire in addition to periodic wildfires has shaped the ecosystem which they depended on for their livelihood in terms of hunting, gathering, and small scale agricultural sites.[14] Indigenous communities have become increasingly susceptible to displacement and fragmentation from wildfire because they live in close proximity to where wildfires in these regions occur.[14] Traditional practices like controlled burning, selective harvesting, and plant cultivation were integral to indigenous vitality and cultural practices.[15] Their traditional ecological knowledge has guided their use of fire as a forest management tool for creating effective disturbances in order to maintain habitats and promote biodiversity; Elders have passed down knowledge of plant use for medicine and species diversity for future generations.[14][15]

Cultural Burning Painting by Sharon Hogg

Impact of colonization:

The arrival of European settlers and subsequent colonial policies have disrupted traditional Indigenous land management practices. Imposed Western conservation and forestry approaches have placed major importance on timber harvest and commodification of timber and non-timber products, likely due to these forests being a high-value resource and one of the largest sources of Canadian economic income.[6][15] Indigenous communities have faced forced displacement, loss of land rights, and suppression of their cultural practices.[16] Cultural burning was outlawed, and knowledge from keepers of fire, in addition to ecological knowledge, was lost due to residential schools separating families and communities.[15][16] Since most of the knowledge in indigenous culture is spread through oral exchange, a lot of history has been lost due to the past implementation of residential schools across Canada.[17] Considering the disproportionate impact of recent year wildfires on Indigenous communities, advocating for fire stewardship practices guided by Indigenous peoples is of immense importance.[16] Settler colonialism has also led to confining Indigenous peoples to reservations or reserves, which restricted their access to hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds. Colonial policy sought to eradicate Indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge systems, which includes land management practices. Indigenous ecological knowledge became devalued and marginalized in favor of Western scientific paradigms.[14] Western conservation approaches were imposed on indigenous lands, and conservation policies often prioritized preservationist objectives, rather than sustainable use of resources, leading to conflict with communities that relied on the land for subsistence, and making conservation refugees out of Indigenous peoples.[15] However, despite centuries of oppression and colonization, Indigenous communities have demonstrated resilience and resistance in the midst of settler colonialism. This is expressed in activism fighting for "land back" and cultural sovereignty. Indigenous-led movements for land justice and environmental protection are attempting to challenge colonial structures and promote Indigenous self-determination in conservation efforts and land management strategies.[18]

Indigenous integration into settler management practices:

Through Indigenous collaboration, this is leading towards a paradigm shift in forest management practices in the boreal forest. By acknowledging the value of Indigenous perspectives, practices, and traditional knowledge, this will lead to forest managers developing more sustainable and resilience approaches to the land. There are a multitude of historical land management practices that are being brought to light in the industry, like selective harvest and controlled burning.[15] Continuing, the use of prescribed fire is important for managing vegetation and land use in the boreal region.[16] By reintroducing controlled burning practices, this can limit the amount of large-scale stand-replacing wildfires.[16] Indigenous communities possess a holistic understanding of biodiversity and its importance for human well-being as well as ecosystem well-being. This involves preserving habitats and having protected areas, maintaining diverse forest composition, and promoting natural regeneration of plants.[3][4] Most importantly, Indigenous knowledge often encompasses environmental changes over the course of history and offers adaptive strategies to deal with these changes.[15] This includes identifying climate-resilient species and adjusting harvesting practices to account for climate related risks like wildfire.

Changes in the wildfire disturbance regime in the boreal forest

Historical scope of wildfire in the boreal forest:

Post-wildfire landscape in the boreal forest.

Historically, the disturbance regime of the boreal forest has been stand and landscape-altering fires, with the larger stand-replacing fires being the most significant.[19] In the North American boreal forest, wildfires are historically caused by lightning.[20] However, human impacts have played a role in wildfire dynamics for millennia: accidental or intentional ignitions, in addition to landscape modifications from lifestyle behaviour which alter the forest structure and distribution of flammable biomass.[21] In the midwest Canadian boreal plains forest between 1970-1999, there was no significant impact on the area burned annually, despite an immense increase in fire suppression expenditure.[22] During this time period, rates of timber harvest increased swiftly in conjunction with increased fire suppression efforts; in Alberta alone, timber volume harvest increased by 47% from 1990-1998.[22] Although the boreal forest was adapted to natural disturbance of wildfire and defoliation from insects, timber harvest in the form of large clearcuts remains distinct from the former, impacting the boreal forest in the form of gradual ecosystem and structural change.[5] [22] In many areas of boreal forest timber harvest, stand structure has largely evolved to shade-intolerant, even-aged stands, in comparison to previous shade-tolerant, uneven-aged stands.[23]

Current impacts of wildfire in the boreal forest:

Presently, there is growing effort to have the foundation of forest management planning simulate that of historical disturbance.[3] Though historically the fire disturbance regime was believed to be severe, killing hundreds of trees, recent research indicates less contiguous patterns of wildfire disturbance.[3] Emphasis is now placed on the inclusion and importance of frequent smaller-scale fires, and of large fires that are not stand-replacing but result in some vegetation unburnt, forming “stepping stones” or “corridors”.[3] Interaction with pre-existing terrain features aids in creating these gaps in disturbance.[22] These varying levels of remaining vegetation greatly impact forest succession, revegetation, and habitat.[3] Due to the vast area that the boreal forest covers, it may be difficult to assess one dominant fire regime in the boreal forest, considering the local impact of topography, weather, and fuel type may vary over the vast expanse.[3] Certainly, continuation of large scale clearcutting as a method of mimicking the natural disturbance pattern proves lacking in consideration of the nuances of the boreal forest wildfire regime.[24]

Changes in boreal tree species distribution in response to different climate warming predictions.

Climate change and anthropogenic factors:

Anthropogenic global warming, primarily driven by emissions of greenhouse gasses, is having widespread effects on weather and climate systems around the globe.[25] Anthropogenic climate change is expected to increase the severity and frequency of fire regimes in the Canadian boreal forest.[26] Lightning strikes are a leading cause of forest fire ignitions in boreal forests.[26] Changes in temperature and precipitation regimes due to anthropogenic global warming are expected to lead to an increase in lightning-producing storms by 2050, thus increasing the risk of boreal forest fires.[26] There has been an observed increase in tree mortality due to heat stress in the warmer regions of the boreal forest as droughts become more prevalent due to climate change.[27] Vegetation shifts are expected in the boreal region as the climate warms, and more frequent fire intervals may lead to less fire resistant forests.[27] The increase in extreme events due to climate chance could change the boreal forest biome dramatically which will further impact the current boreal forest fire regimes.[27]

Other anthropogenic factors vary throughout the boreal region but include resource extraction operations, pipelines, and human population density.[28] Zones of the Canadian boreal forest where there is higher human density are less affected by fire due to faster fire detection and suppression times.[28] However, in areas where there are some human developments, for example for natural resource extraction, there is an increased risk of anthropogenic ignitions, and combined with high forest connectivity, there is an increased risk of forest fires.[28] Additionally, human management of vegetation around infrastructure such as pipelines limits the possibility of fire ignition and spread by creating breaks in the homogenous forest.[28]

Future boreal forest management strategies

Firefighters carrying out prescribed burning.

The boreal forest is confronting unparalleled challenges, necessitating the adoption of adaptive and forward-thinking management strategies.[29] Future management strategies must be comprehensive, incorporating ecological, social, and economic factors to ensure the long-term sustainability of this vital ecosystem.[30] To start, climate-resilient silviculture will bolster the boreal forest’s resilience to shifting climatic conditions. This could involve methods such as selective logging, managed burns, and the promotion of fire-adapted species to maintain a resilient forest structure.[31][32] Furthermore, advancements in remote sensing and early detection will facilitate the identification and monitoring of potential wildfire outbreaks.[33] This strategy enables prompt response and mitigation, reducing the impacts of uncontrolled fires on the ecosystem.[34] Additionally, it is crucial to engage the community and understand indigenous knowledge, as acknowledging and incorporating their traditional ecological knowledge is extremely important.[35] It is also vital to establish adaptive policy frameworks that can respond to changing environmental conditions, including dynamic fire management plans, zoning regulations, and incentives to encourage sustainable practices.[36]

Forest management practices that mimic natural disturbance patterns, such as prescribed burns, can relieve some of the negative impacts of fire suppression.[19] Prescribed burning is the informed and knowledgeable inclusion of fire in a specific area of the landscape, with the intention of achieving calculated forest management objectives.[37] This management tool has historically been used frequently for site preparation following harvest, mainly due to the chemical changes in soil that result from burning: increased nutrient cycling and accelerated weathering are both significant effects of fire on the forest landscape.[37] Despite benefits of prescribed burning, there has been a decline in this method in Canada largely due to operational challenges.[37] [38] Yet, regardless of the challenges fire may pose, the evidence indicating the benefits of prescribed burning suggest it is a valuable tool for moving forward with forest management, if seeking to emulate natural disturbance regime is the goal.[38] Furthermore, there is growing interest in prescribed burning as a means of decreasing fuel load and decreasing the occurrence of recent “mega-fires”.[39][40] Mega-fires are not considered to be a historical occurrence, and are characterized by large areas (>10000ha), with difficult to manage fires requiring large amounts of economic resources, putting wildfire crews in dangerous situations, and damaging more property especially on the border between urban and wild-land areas.[40] Future strategies for forest management in the boreal forest may benefit by considering fuel management as a prevention mechanism for the occurrence of mega-fires.


The boreal forests of Canada cover a massive area and possess critical ecological, environmental, and cultural significance.[1][2] These areas are currently facing significant challenges due to changing wildfire disturbance regimes, particularly influenced by anthropogenic climate change and poor forest management.[25][28] Historically, the boreal forests of Canada have experienced stand-replacing fires, but in recent years this buildup of flammable materials on the forest floor leads to these fires becoming out of control very quickly.[19][21] Recent research suggests a shift towards smaller-scale and contiguous wildfire patterns, which would aid in emulating historical disturbance regimes for effective forest management.[3] Prescribed burning has emerged as a promising strategy that has been practiced by indigenous communities throughout history, and can mitigate the negative impacts of fire suppression and prevent large-scale fires.[37] By emulating natural disturbance patterns, prescribed burns can enhance forest resilience to inevitable fires, and reduce fuels loading.[38][39] Operational challenges and prescribed burning being reintroduced have been difficult obstacles for contemporary forest management to cope with.[37][38] Moving forward, sustainable forest management practices are aiming to prioritize biodiversity conservation and ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.[5] By collaborating with indigenous communities and learning the history of their relationship with forests and land, current forest managers and practitioners can better assess how to approach conservation issues along with timber harvest.[11][15] Integration of scientific research, community engagement, and management strategies that can navigate rising temperatures is crucial for fostering healthy boreal forest ecosystems for future generations.[6][7][8]


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