‘It is bad now and it is only go­ing to get worse’

Ex­perts say for­est fires like ones in On­tario can take long-term toll on en­vi­ron­ment

The Western Star - - CANADA - BY GABRIELE ROY

For­est fires like the ones cur­rently burn­ing in On­tario can have long-term im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment, ex­perts say, not­ing that in­creas­ingly warmer and drier weather con­di­tions are mak­ing such blazes more com­mon.

As of Sun­day, there were 127 fires burn­ing in the prov­ince, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Forestry. One of the fires, dubbed Parry Sound 33, is more than 110 square kilo­me­tres in size and has prompted evac­u­a­tions in some com­mu­ni­ties.

“We are see­ing the man­i­fes­ta­tion of cli­mate change hap­pen­ing in real form right now,” said Blair Felt­mate, head of the In­tact Cen­tre on Cli­mate Adap­ta­tion at the Univer­sity of Water­loo. “It is bad now and it is only go­ing to get worse.”

Se­vere for­est fires like Parry Sound 33, which has been burn­ing in north­east­ern On­tario since July 18, can po­ten­tially burn off all the veg­e­ta­tion and or­ganic soil in an area, leav­ing only ashes and rocks, one ex­pert said.

“What I think is hap­pen­ing now (with Parry Sound 33) is that this is a pretty in­tense fire that is com­bust­ing away al­most all signs of life in at least some of the ar­eas in that fire perime­ter,” said Mer­ritt Turet­sky, a Univer­sity of Guelph pro­fes­sor and ecosys­tem ecol­o­gist.

Such fires in peat-rich ar­eas can also burn away the ground around charred trees that re­main stand­ing, she said.

“Noth­ing is hold­ing these trees on the ground any­more. A big gust of wind and they fall right off,” Turet­sky said, not­ing that the sit­u­a­tion could pose a hazard for res­i­dents moving back into their homes af­ter a for­est fire.

The way in which for­est fires burn the ground has also changed in re­cent years, said Turet­sky, not­ing that in the past, fires left patches of surviving veg­e­ta­tion and or­ganic mat­ter be­hind.

“Now when we go in and sur­vey these se­verely burned plots, we lit­er­ally feel like we are walk­ing on the moon,” she said. “This is a to­tally dif­fer­ent ball game for the veg­e­ta­tion to re-veg­e­tate.”

Se­verely burned ground can lead to soil ero­sion, which then causes other is­sues, said Felt­mate.

“When large pre­cip­i­ta­tion oc­curs, trees are usu­ally there to in­ter­vene be­tween the wa­ter and the ground, so the wa­ter only sort of sprin­kles onto the ground,” he said. “But when the trees have been re­moved, rain­drops hit the ground at max­i­mum speed and it can cre­ate a large-scale ero­sion.”

When such ero­sion oc­curs, soil and ashes can flow into wa­ter sys­tems and that po­ten­tially “knocks out the habi­tat” for in­sects that live in the area, said Felt­mate.

The sever­ity with which for­est fires are burn­ing in ar­eas that have peat or or­ganic soil, which are typ­i­cally wet, is con­cern­ing, said James Michael Wadding­ton, a McMaster Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who has stud­ied wild­fires for over a decade.

“Sev­eral decades of fire sup­pres­sion com­bined with un­prece­dented dry con­di­tions fu­elled by cli­mate change means that peat is burn­ing more of­ten,” said Wadding­ton, who added that the more se­vere the burn­ing of the peat, the greater the re­sources and time re­quired to fight the fire.

“It also in­creases the amount of par­tic­u­late mat­ter in smoke which can be a health risk and also in­creases the amount of car­bon lost to the at­mos­phere.”

For­est fires could also have an ef­fect on drink­ing wa­ter if ma­te­ri­als that pose a health con­cern make their way into a ground­wa­ter sup­ply, ac­cord­ing to a team of re­searchers in Al­berta that is study­ing the is­sue.

While not all for­est fires have a large im­pact on drink­ing wa­ter, the mat­ter is one that calls for fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion, said Mon­ica Emelko, who is part of the re­search team for the South­ern Rockies Wa­ter­shed Project.

“If ma­te­ri­als that are a health con­cern af­ter a fire make their way into a ground­wa­ter sup­ply, we might not catch that for a while giv­ing our mon­i­tor­ing strate­gies,” she said.

Ex­perts note, how­ever, that for­est fires have oc­curred for cen­turies and some types of veg­e­ta­tion ben­e­fit from the blazes. But, Turet­sky said, “the nat­u­ral fire regime of wild­fire is be­ing tossed out of the win­dow.”

Com­mu­ni­ties in forested re­gions should de­ploy fire pro­tec­tion pro­grams that use ed­u­ca­tion, emer­gency plan­ning, train­ing and more to deal with the threat of wild­fires, she said.

“If we don’t think about our in­ter­ac­tion with wild­fires, we will see more and more mor­tal­ity be­cause I don’t think we can keep peo­ple and wild­fires away from each other.”

CP PHOTO

Smoke blan­kets the area as Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources fire­fight­ers work a boat at Flat Rapids Camp and Re­sort on the French River near Killarney, Ont., on July 31.

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