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Vermilion Pass Burn

Fireweed growing at base of burned snag, Vermilion Pass Fire.
© Parks Canada / M. Oliver

On July 9, 1968, lightning struck the slope of Mount Whymper at the north end of Kootenay National Park. Driven by strong winds, the fire spread rapidly. Over the next three days, fire-fighting crews struggled to control the flames. On the fourth day, it rained and the flames began to subside. When the smoke cleared, over 2,950 hectares of subalpine forest had burned. Since then, the Vermilion Pass Burn has changed dramatically. So have our attitudes about fire.

For most of the last century, our society regarded fire as a destroyer and suppressed it even in national parks. During this time, animals were often used as fire-prevention symbols. Images of Bambi fleeing the flames and Smokey the Bear's burnt paws reinforced the idea of fire as evil.

Over the last two decades, we have discovered that fire plays an essential role in nature. The Vermilion Pass site is one of the most extensively studied burns in all of Canada. From this and other studies we now know that many plants and animals are adapted to fire and the conditions it creates.

Shortly after the Vermilion Pass fire, many people remarked how barren and desolate the landscape looked. But the forest was not destroyed. It simply moved to the next stage of a natural cycle of growth and renewal.

Even as the rocks cooled, the forest was reborn. The wood consumed by the flames was converted to a mineral-rich ash, releasing a flush of nutrients that was taken up by new plants. The thick forest canopy was burned away and sunlight shafted to the forest floor, warming the soil and creating an ideal seed bed.

The searing heat of the fire opened the cones of the lodgepole pine, scattering the seeds onto the forest floor. Some shrubs, like false azalea, were burned to the ground but sprouted anew from underground roots. A pink carpet of fireweed spread through the burn.

Moose in the Vermilion Pass burn.
© Parks Canada / M. Oliver

Immediately after the fire, woodpeckers moved in to feast on insects that colonized the dead trees. Elk and moose fed on the lush new growth. Predators followed. Gradually, the blackened landscape was transformed into a forest brimming with life.

Fire not only acts as a recycler and renewer but also rearranges vegetation in a continual cycle of change. Over time, fires burning across the landscape create a mosaic of different vegetation types and ages. The result is a mix of forests, shrublands and meadows. This diversity of habitats and the edges between them, are favoured by wildlife and support many species.

Today, fire managers recognize that fire suppression has denied fire its natural role in the forest. They are working to sustain fire-dependent ecosystems, while still providing fire protection.

In most parks we cannot take a "hands off" approach. Fires burning uncontrolled pose too much risk to life and property. To safely restore fire's ecological role, a program of prescribed (or planned) fires is used. These fires may be started by lightning or by park staff. Trained specialists decide where, when and under what conditions such fires will be permitted to burn.

Of course, some fires will always have to be put out. This includes fires that threaten people, facilities and adjacent lands.

Visitors hiking on the Stanley Glacier Trail through Vermilion Pass Fire.
© Parks Canada / M. Oliver

Fire is just part of the ecosystem puzzle. Parks Canada is cooperating with other groups to address a variety of ecosystem concerns over the broader landscape. Only by working together can we sustain our native plants and animals and the ecological processes that link them to the land.

To experience the Vermilion Pass Burn today, take a walk along the Fireweed Trail. Interpretive signs tell the story of the burn and explain fire's role in the forest. Bring your binoculars -- you can expect to see birds and wildlife. Take a picture and come back in ten years to see the changes that time will bring.