Following a 2017 fire season that saw significant burning in Glacier and Waterton parks, with Kenow and Sprague wildfires, scientists and researchers have been hard at work determining what the fires mean for both parks as another fire season starts cooking.
Fire ecology was the subject of a presentation by the University of Columbia’s Cameron Naficy recently at Science and History Day in Waterton. According to Naficy, recent wildfire studies have changed the scientific community’s understanding of how fire affects the Glacier and Waterton region.
“The crown of the continent ecosystem has higher fire resiliency than we were expecting,” he said. “What we have found is that, historically in this area, a high-severity fire regime will transition into a mixed-severity fire regime.”
According to Naficy’s research, major fires have occurred in the area at 30-40 year intervals, but the number of large fires is increasing.
“We have had a real uptick since the 1980s in the annual area burned by wildfires in most western states. History tells us that fire has historically always been very active in this region, but there was a bit of a lull from the 1920s and ‘30s until the 1980s,” he said. “While fire suppression during that time may have been involved in that lull, the climate was really a driving factor. There are other factors, but the data shows that the main reason we are having such an uptick in fires is because of the climate.”
The trend is expected to continue.
“There may not be a huge shift in the time these fires occur, but we are expecting to have a much greater magnitude of wildfires in the coming years in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada,” he said. “We could get a complete potential transformation of the landscape with fires happening at very high frequencies, just based on the climatic trends that are projected for the area.”
The increased fire activity could spark dramatic changes to the landscape.
The true danger to forests from high-severity fire is when large sections of forest are burned, meaning seeds must travel long distances to generate new growth.
Those conditions can lead to regeneration failure, where new trees do not grow in the burned area for decades, if ever.
The good news is that once an area moves into a severe fire regime, that does not mean it will stay there. History has shown that forests in the area have fluctuated between high-severity and mixed-severity fire regimes for centuries, and there is no reason to believe that cycle will not continue.
“We really want people to start thinking about how these ecosystems have changed and will continue to change after fires,” Naficy said. “We are still learning a lot about how the process works.”
Fire was also discussed during Chris Anderson’s presentation on aspen expansion into the grasslands in and around Waterton. While the study is still in its early stages, it has shown that aspens are expanding into the grassland areas, but the complete effects of the Kenow and some additional prescribed burns is not yet known.