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Our Commitment to Resilience

Posted by AFPA | July 25, 2023
Alberta Forester

Reducing fire risk & growing healthy forests for future generations

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) would have you believe the young forests that grow back after a sustainable harvest are driving wildfire risk in the province. While there’s quite a bit more complexity to this issue than they let on, the crux of the matter is that these remarks are both inaccurate and needlessly damaging. Rest assured, we’re here to set the record straight.

At last count in the 2023 wildfire season, over 800 wildfires have burned over 1.5 million hectares to date – 22 times the area of Edmonton. This unforgettable wildfire season is the result of a multitude of complex risk factors colliding at once. A warming climate, a sea of red pine trees that have fallen victim to the small but brutal pine beetle, and a forest cover comprised of densely packed and decaying overmature trees – the perfect storm. But sustainable forest management is fighting these risk factors head on.

Part of what makes Alberta’s boreal forest so unique is that it is naturally disturbance driven, primarily through fire. Historically, wildfires would tear across the land undisturbed and unburdened by human intervention and in their wake, they would leave behind swaths of charred land where young forests would return and eventually become host to a plethora of plants and wildlife that depend on the biodiversity and sunlight that only a young forest can provide. Historical data shows that if left unchecked, forests in Alberta would burn every 40 to 120 years.

Today, wildfires are not left unchecked. Alberta’s wildfire response is immediate and aggressive, which is necessary to protect lives, communities, infrastructure, and livelihoods. What this also means is that we have a higher concentration of over-mature forest than would occur under natural conditions – forests that are ripe for insect infestations and strewn with fallen dry logs and debris that all increase the likelihood of intense and volatile wildfires.

Alberta has battled infestations from pests like the mountain pine beetle for decades and, thanks in large part to tools like strategic harvesting, we’ve been successful in holding back the surge, allowing Alberta communities and provinces further east more time to adjust, implement more FireSmart practices, and put in place plans to protect watersheds.

Prescribed burns, for example, are one of many valuable tools that work to mitigate wildfire risk in tandem with sustainable forest management and strategic harvesting; however, the AWA’s recommendation to use this tool more is not a decision to be taken lightly. In fact, there are experts in wildfire science and behaviour who make careful decisions about how and when to apply prescribed burns in the safest and most responsible way possible – not in haste.

We are facing conditions that are far drier than they have ever been, and for a longer period each year. We’re seeing deciduous forests exhibit crown fires, which is a fire that burns the forest canopy – something that might have once been considered an anomaly. But make no mistake, deciduous forests can burn with great intensity too.

Recent memory shows that the most volatile period of Alberta’s fire season is in the month of May – we know this from looking at fires that have torn through our province in 1998, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2019, and of course, 2023. In spring we have the driest conditions of the year, along with dead grass under deciduous trees that haven’t yet produced leaves. These are ideal conditions for a wildfire to tear right through a deciduous forest, which are prone to insect infestation too – pests like the forest tent caterpillar will defoliate aspen trees, making them highly susceptible to intense wildfires.

There is no industry that understands the threat of wildfire and the importance of growing resilient forests quite like the forest industry. These dedicated foresters, equipment operators, tree planters, and mill operators make up the communities that live on the edge of our forests, and they are the same individuals who monitor and tend to Alberta forests all year round.

We take great care in tending and growing the forests of tomorrow. Our industry harvests less than half of a percent of the province’s forest each year, and diligently replenishes and regenerates harvest areas so that future generations will continue to have strong, resilient, and biodiverse forests to enjoy. Sustainable harvesting is important not just to create the products that we rely on every day, like lumber, diapers, and IV bags, but is also a means to facilitate the reset that our forests need without putting communities at risk. And when it comes to growing new forests, we don’t plant whatever species will grow the fastest or is the cheapest to plant, rather, we grow new forests that represent the same species diversity that was there before.

The AWA recently claimed that young forests are more likely to burn than mature forests, and in some cases that can be true, but there is more nuance and complexity to this than they acknowledge. Juvenile pine stands that have naturally regenerated after a forest fire are at incredible risk of burning with immense intensity. Fire-regenerated juvenile forests are littered with dry, semi-burnt material on the forest floor and the regenerating seedlings are densely packed, which creates an incredible risk of extreme wildfire behaviour. Alternatively, young forests that are regenerated and tended after a sustainable harvest will contain far less debris, are less densely packed with combustible seedlings, and present a lower risk of fire threat.

The folks that manage our forests do so with great care. And not just in consideration of timber values, but in consideration of all forest values, including wildlife, water, recreation, and so much more. In fact, it’s a legal requirement of the detailed forest management plans that we prepare – plans that consider the future of the forest not just for the next 5 or 10 years, but for the next 200.

Jason Krips, President and CEO

Alberta Forest Products Association

AFPA is a non-profit association that represents Alberta’s forest industry. We support our members in reaching new heights of sustainability, safety, efficiency and innovation, and we give Albertans opportunities to learn about our forests and the forest industry.

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