The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has a message for the government: start more fires, and let many of the ones that start naturally burn longer.
Commissioner Diane Saxe made the recommendation as part of her latest annual report last week, which included a section on the province’s lacklustre record in allowing naturally-occurring fires to burn in northern Ontario.
Forestry services have known for decades that fire plays a crucial role in maintaining forest ecosystems. Fire clears out a forest’s underbrush and makes room for new growth, allowing the forest to regenerate. And in northern Ontario, tree species such as the jack pine need fire to release seeds from their pine cones: the resin holding the seeds inside the cones only softens in fire, freeing the seeds to become future trees.
However, Saxe says the government is fighting fires in the north too aggressively. The province insists it’s doing so in the name of public safety, but the commissioner found that isn't the only consideration at play: In particular, she says the government is being too deferential to the concerns of the forestry industry by overreacting to fires near commercial forests.
“It can be reasonable to suppress fires in forests where mature allocated timber is at risk,” Saxe’s report says. “However, in doing so, we deprive these forests of the natural disturbance that has shaped them. Too much weight has been given to the future value of timber.”
But before the forestry sector takes more than their share of the blame, Saxe’s report also says Ontario has been even more averse to the productive use of fire than the forestry industry wants.
“I don’t know how else to describe it, but you can see the difference right away,” says Brad Ekstrom, planning forester for Hearst Forest Management. “They [forests] just look happier” after a fire, with the benefits visible years afterwards. Forests that have been burned grow back faster and healthier.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s forestry companies would often use prescribed burns to revitalize areas after they had been logged with the help of provincially funded forest management programs. That came to a screeching halt in 1996, when the new Tory government of Mike Harris shifted the Ministry of Natural Resources (now Natural Resources and Forestry) to full-cost recovery for prescribed burns. The move saved the government money while increasing the cost for forestry companies: a prescribed burn that once cost private companies $75 per hectare now costs up to $900. That’s led to a massive decline in the number of deliberate fires: between 1998 and 2014 only 8,000 hectares saw prescribed burns, an area roughly equal to the City of Toronto’s park system — a pittance in the vast north. The decrease has a simple enough explanation: at the higher rates, forestry companies are opting instead for cheaper, but inferior, chemical and mechanical methods of forest restoration.
Even if a forester has money for a prescribed burn, there are other obstacles: simply getting permission from the government is an onerous process, but the government is understandably skittish about starting fires in Crown forests. And even if a company has both money and permission, there’s another problem: the best time for prescribed burns is the natural fire season, when ministry staff are occupied managing natural forest fires.
Ekstrom says he’d like to use more prescribed burns, but he’ll need financial assistance: Hearst conducted a burn in 2012 with the help of a provincial grant. In that exceptional case, Queen’s Park was willing to subsidize the burn because it helped restore caribou and moose habitat. But a one-off grant for one forest that worked in 2012 (and may not be repeated) isn’t going to solve the problems of the boreal across the north. Ekstrom agrees with the commissioner that only a return to more regular uses of prescribed burns will help. “They say I’ve got to maintain a site that’s habitable for caribou, but they’re not going to let me use the best tool. It’s like needing a sledgehammer to break up concrete and being handed a piece of glass,” he says.
(The commissioner’s report had a whole separate section on endangered species in Ontario, including the government’s failure to halt the decline in moose numbers across northern Ontario. The preferred habitat for moose is a forest that’s recovering after a fire.)
Overly-enthusiastic firefighting isn’t just a problem for moose today: it’s also going to be a problem for all of us in the future, thanks to the growing effects of climate change. Northern Ontario is warming faster than the south of the province, and rainfall patterns there are changing as well. Meanwhile, current practices mean that instead of forests experiencing regular, moderate, healthy fires, fuel builds up to the point where the fires that do burn become catastrophic. The combination of these trends means a future with increased risks to property and human life.
Environmentalists may not love the idea of effectively subsidizing the forestry industry (which is what a return to pre-1996 levels of cost-sharing would mean) but a policy that helped restore moose and caribou habitat still has a lot to recommend it — and the Liberals have strongly promoted the economic “eco-services” their policies have provided in other contexts.
For now, the government isn’t considering any major changes to its firefighting regime in the north.
“We’re continuing to do some prescribed burns in the province, but ultimately public safety is number one,” Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Kathryn McGarry tells TVO.org. “We’re going to continue to pore over the commissioner’s report … We’ll need to see how we put the details in her report together with the advice from our partners in industry.”
While the risks to the climate and particular species may seem far off, the government has a more immediate problem: even if it did want to consider a shift in policy, thanks to the nearly generation-long effective moratorium on prescribed burns staff who are most familiar with how to evaluate, plan and conduct prescribed burns are retiring.
“There are very few foresters left in the government, or even in the industry, who have a working knowledge of the benefits of a prescribed burn. I cut my teeth planting trees in areas that had been burned, and have watched those areas grow,” Ekstrom says. “Just the expertise to do the planning is waning.”
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