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Parks on Fire

The Fairholme Burn

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Audio Podcast 6: The Fairholme Burn

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst

Hi, I’m Dave Verhulst, and this is Parks on Fire, Episode 6 - The Fairholme Burn.

When many of the Mountain National Parks began their prescribed fire season in the spring of 2003, there was no indication that it would turn out to be one of the biggest fire years on record across Western Canada.

Jane Park was on the ground as a member of the mountain national park fire management team.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member

Generally every spring, the mountain parks or parks all across Canada, have a number of prescribed fires that they have planned. In 2003, it was a normal fire season so Banff had the Fairholme fire on the go and Jasper had some planned and so did many parks in the west. Generally in the mountains June is a very wet month and that’s why, locally, they’re know as the June monsoons. So if we light fires in the springtime, we can kind of use those June monsoons as a bit of an end point to the fire so that we don’t have smoldering fire into the depth of our actually summer fire season. So we can use the weather conditions and kind of predict when those monsoons are going to come and we can burn and then have those kind of extinguish the fire behavior before the main part of the summer.

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


The Fairholme prescribed fire set in stages between April 1 and June 7. It was an important burn in an important part of Banff National Park.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member

So one of the primary objectives of the Fairholme prescribed burn was to protect the communities of Harvey Heights and Canmore from the risk of catastrophic wildfire. And we did this by taking a large portion of forest near the eastern boundary of Banff National Park and to reduce the amount of fuel there by thinning it through some selective logging and also burning the understory vegetation. So that, if a fire did approach from the west it would become less intense as it approached those communities.
We also wanted to improve critical habitat in the valley bottoms and also reduce the amount of forest susceptible to the mountain pine beetle.

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


Through April and May, the prescribed fires progressed as planned. By June, 60 percent of the objective had been met. Fire specialists monitored the fire and expected the usual June rains to extinguish it fully. The rains never came. All of Western Canada experienced intense drought.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member
 
It was one of the driest summers on record. And I believe it was the third driest on record in the last, almost hundred years. And then what also influenced that was the severity of the widespread nature of this drought – that it was all over western Canada. So not only was Banff dry but so was Jasper, so was Kootenay, so was the interior BC. So often when you have prolonged periods of no rain, you know, obviously it affects the fine fuels first, so like all the needles and the tiny branches on the ground and the litter. And then as more and more time goes by, the fuels in the ground - so the more deeply buried logs in the ground or the roots of trees - will get more and more dry, so when a fire does go in there it doesn’t just kind of flash over and burn through quickly, it’ll dig in and really go into the ground and the root systems, and really kind burn everything under the ground as well as on top of the ground.

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


Fire management is extremely weather dependent, and every sprinkle of rain is important. Ten millimeters of rain may not seem like a lot, but over an area the size of Banff National Park, it amounts to billions of liters of water. For 43 consecutive days, Banff National Park received virtually no rain, and experienced extreme fire danger. Smoldering remnants of the Fairholme prescribed fire flared up to become a wildfire that burned through July.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member

By mid-summer, the whole fire situation in western Canada was really intense. So there were huge fires all over Canada - or all over western Canada, so there was the large Blairmore fire down in the south in southern Alberta, there was the Barriere fire near Kamloops, Kelowna, Jasper had a huge fire, and Kootenay National Park had a huge fire…The main reason people come to the Rockies is for kind of the majestic splendor and the view, and they had none. It was extremely smoky and extremely difficult to get around. So, you know, if you wanted to get into the southern Kootenays or whatever and there was that large fire in Kootenay National Park, there was only specific times of day that you could get through that valley. And they had pilot cars and the visibility was pretty much nil and sometimes it didn’t open at all. And for a lot of people who didn’t understand what was going on and how many resources we had here, it was quite frightening.

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


When a big fire breaks out, Parks Canada pools resources and sends fire command teams and specialists to the park at risk.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member

So because of the huge number of large fires in western Canada, resources – like firefighters, and incident command teams who manage fires, as well as aircraft like helicopters and water bombers – were kind of stretched really thin across western Canada. And so it was just a matter of really managing priorities and risk as to where those resources went.

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


The 2003 fires served as a regional wake-up call.

Jane Park:
Fire management team member

If you talk to fire specialists in western Canada it’s become a bit of a reference point in terms of intense fire years. So, you know, generally people remember, you know, what fire they were working on in 2003 because it was such as intense year and it was highly stressful for everybody that was involved because… these fires weren’t just burning in the back forty, they were burning right near communities, right near where all the tourists wanted to go. There were people, kind of really embedded in the landscape everywhere they were happening so it was really stressful…

Narrator:
Fire Communications Officer, Dave Verhulst


You’ve been listening to Parks on Fire, a podcast by Parks Canada’s Fire Management Team.

Narrator:
This audio program was a production of Parks Canada, an agency of the Government of Canada responsible for Canada’s national parks, national marine conservation areas and many of Canada’s national historic sites. To learn more about Parks Canada, to download more podcasts and to find accessible transcripts of our podcasts please visit the Parks Canada website at www.parkscanada.gc.ca.

The contents of this audio file are the copyright of Parks Canada 2011. This podcast series is also available in French on i-Tunes as well as the Parks Canada’s website. Ce balado est également disponible en français sur i-Tunes de même que le site web de Parcs Canada. Thanks for listening.