Controlling the Burn of Banff

Alexandrie Dezan

The image of a pristine natural environment entices millions of visitors to Canada’s national parks each year. Indeed, if major town sites and fellow tourists are avoided, one could potentially experience an outdoor getaway void of any noticeable human interference. In a recent field trip I was fortunate enough to partake in a series of lectures, museum visits and discussions that challenged the notion of natural, untouched wildness in the protected Canadian wilderness of Banff National Park. Our discussions and experiences documented the constant negotiations between the state managed environment of the national park, the physical environment of the Rocky Mountains and the town sites of Banff and Canmore.

A lecture from long time Banff resident and Parks Canada fire expert Cliff White perhaps most succinctly revealed the multifaceted nature of this relationship. With particular concern for the town sites of Banff and Canmore, White explained the complexities of controlled burning within the park. The image of an ‘untouched’ natural environment, a sought after feature for many park visitors, in fact never existed in this area without fire. Lightning sparked wildfires or controlled burns from Natives pre-existed European settlement in the Canadian Rockies. These burns, whether natural or controlled, served to reinvigorate wildlife habitats and the forest ecology in general. Native inhabitants of the Rockies or the nearby foothills practiced controlled burning to entice desired species, namely Elk, to graze in revitalized river valleys where they could then be more easily hunted.

In the mid to late 20th century, firefighting techniques disrupted the benefits of frequent burning. Popular perception of fires is often concerned primarily with the destruction of the physical landscape, the deterioration of air quality and the posed threat to human settlement. Dramatic media coverage often feeds these perceptions. Of course, wildfires do pose real dangers and potentially devastating destruction to human settlement. What is less understood by the public, noted White, is that those areas of forest untouched by fire for over a century become less desirable for many animals, and in fact end up stockpiling dangerous levels of dry fuel. Active protection of these areas from burning makes them more volatile in the event of naturally sparked wildfires. The deterioration of animal habitat soon results as fewer fires compromise ecological integrity. As animal species are desired attractions for park visitors and integral to the maintenance of a healthy ecology, Parks Canada has promoted controlled burning within the parks system since the early 1980’s.

The increasing devastation of British Columbia’s forests from the invasive pine beetle has furthered Parks Canada’s promotion of controlled burning. River valleys act as corridors of travel for all species living in the Rockies. An increase in old stands of lodge pole pine and a series of mild winters has created an ideal habitat for the pine beetle, and has raised concerns that the Bow River Valley might provide a corridor for the pine beetle if the population was to move east from British Columbia. Parks Canada decided to conduct one of the largest and most complicated controlled burns ever attempted in 2003 to combat the pine beetle threat, the dangers associated with increasing forest fuel pile-ups and due concern for threats to ecological integrity.

Controlled burns around town sites are extremely contentious. In May of 2000, a controlled burn in Bandelier National Park in northern New Mexico burned out of control due to high winds, and eventually destroyed 400 homes in the town of Los Alamos, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Cliff White confessed that this event loomed heavily on his mind as he and his staff proceeded with a series of burns in Banff’s the Fairholme Mountain range in 2003. A series of strategic fires and logging activity was initially carried out around Carrot Creek in the spring in order create a fireguard near the park’s boundary. This fireguard served to act as a fuel break so that the fire, upon reaching the break, would avoid proceeding any further. The massive 300 hectare break at Carrot Creek was of particular importance, as it protected the town of Canmore from fire encroachment once a much larger section of forest was lit later in the season. Fortunately for the town of Canmore and Parks Canada fire management personnel, the 5000 hectare burn was successfully restricted to its planned route.

While discussing the complex logistics of organizing and implementing the burn, White displayed an intimidating photograph taken from the town of Canmore. Massive grey and black smoke clouds rose high above the towering mountains surrounding Canmore, providing a very real reminder of the potential dangers of fire management. White, ever the optimist in spite of the controversy surrounding the burn, noted that the event served as a “teachable moment” for Parks Canada. The complexity of wildlife and environmental management within the park is often unseen to visitors, residents and wildlife enthusiasts as they get caught up in the beauty of their surroundings and the perceived primacy of the physical landscape. The Fairholme prescribed burn used fire for ecological reasons, namely pine beetle prevention, wildlife habitat conservation and future fire protection. However, it also served the further purpose of exposing the residents of Canmore and the Canadian public at large to Parks Canada’s management agenda. As human settlement and recreational development in Banff has altered previous natural phenomena, Parks Canada has taken the initiative to ‘reintroduce’ fire into the managed park environment.

The reintroduction of fire into Banff displays the sophistication of managing protected wilderness. Management barriers include both the constraints of the physical landscape of the Rocky Mountains and of human settlement in that same space. Parks Canada hopes that publicity gained by large scale management plans like the Fairholme Range prescribed burn can perhaps overshadow any opposition to such actions by creating an awareness of potential benefits. That ‘teachable moment’ symbolizes the fact that before European arrival, natural and human-sparked blazes had long been an important influence on Banff’s physical landscape. Although destructive in appearance and potentially dangerous, controlled burns serve as reminders that the Banff environment was never a static entity. In spite of borders drawn by the Canadian government to demarcate a ‘natural’ area worthy of protection, the Banff environment had long been characterized by destructive yet ecologically advantageous forest fires. The reintroduction of this once common element into the park landscape displays the intricacies of the state managed environment coming into conflict with the perceived wildness of Banff, and of the populations, both human and animal, that call the Rocky Mountains home.

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