Fire is a natural ecological process that shapes and forms the structure of both grassland and forest ecosystems.
In the forest, fire removes dead vegetation, which allows the sun to reach the forest floor and recycle nutrients. Grasslands require fire to re-open the land from encroaching aspen forest. Fire can also reduce parasites that may impact various mammals and it stimulates new food growth in both habitats that many species rely on.
For several decades after Elk Island National Park was created wildfire was mistakenly viewed as a destructive force and were aggressively extinguished. This one-sided view of fire created an imbalance in the park’s forests and grasslands. Current fire management practice focusses on protecting human life first, followed by, private property, park infrastructure and cultural assets. Prescribed fires, or intentionally lit fires, help return this regenerative process to forest and grassland ecosystems in a safe and controlled manner.
Wildfires that occur within park boundaries are managed so that lives are not threatened and infrastructure is not impacted, to the degree that is possible.
Careful planning, implementing various fire management practices, and monitoring help ensure the safety of people while improving park ecosystems so visitors can enjoy this unique region for generations to come.
Restoring Fire Disturbance Patterns
In the past, the importance of fire in maintaining a healthy ecosystem was not understood. Extinguishing all wildfires is now understood to interrupt the natural cycle of forest and grassland renewal. Some plant and animal species depend on frequent fire. As an example, grasslands get smaller without fire to control adjacent aspen forests. In boreal forests, most tree species are not well adapted to a long lifespan. If trees become over-mature, the forest becomes more susceptible to diseases and storm damage.
To restore and maintain forest and grassland ecosystems, prescribed fires are used to substitute the natural disturbance patterns of wildfires. Prescribed fires are intentionally lit, controlled fires that
- reduce dead vegetation that will release nutrients to enrich the soil,
- reduce the hazard of built up, dead, flammable materials that could otherwise ignite large catastrophic wildfires and
- promote new growth to provide habitat and food for many species of plants and animals.
Annual monitoring of natural and prescribed fire activity in the park is used to determine when and where a prescribed fire will help improve or maintain the health of the park.
Protecting Visitors and Infrastructure
Fire is a key process in keeping Elk Island National Park safe and healthy. Regular prescribed fires create healthy, functioning ecosystems that sustain a wide variety of plants and animals that visitors can enjoy. Prescribed fire also reduces the risk of uncontrolled wildfire by removing excess dead and dry vegetation.
“Fire Smart” conducted at picnic sites, campgrounds and historic buildings throughout the park also ensure visitor safety. These sites are cleared of debris and the trees adjacent to the sites are trimmed to ensure visitor safety and reduce the potential for accidental ignition of wildfires.
Decades of wildfire suppression throughout the early years of Elk Island National Park have had a significant negative impact on the pockets of grasslands found in the park. The absence of fire has allowed the surrounding aspen forests to take over and significantly reduce the size of meadows and grassy areas. This loss of habitat results in a reduction of species variety and reduces the food available for large ungulates like bison, moose and elk.
The use of prescribed fire in grasslands is effectively restoring lost habitat by pushing the aspen forest back. Prescribed fire is effective because grassland vegetation regenerates at a much faster rate following a fire than the surrounding aspen forest. Performing three to five prescribed fires within a 10 to 15 year-period is an effective way to increase and maintain the rare native grasslands in Elk Island National Park.