Forest Fires - Background

Wildland fire has a major impact on the sustainability of many Canadian forests. Fire policies attempt to balance suppression costs with values at risk while recognizing the natural role of fire in managing the landscape. There are three aspects of wildland fire in Canada: fire regimes, fire management, and fire research.

Fire Regimes

Forest FireA fire regime, or pattern of fire activity, is characterized by attributes such as fire interval (years between fires on one site), average annual burned area, and fire severity. A fire regime integrates many natural and cultural influences. It changes only with significant shifts in climate or fire policies, or when humans profoundly alter the fuel structure.

The fire season in Canada extends from April through October. Typically, there is virtually no winter activity, a flurry of spring fires after snow melt, followed by a decline as green-up progresses northward, a peak of lightning fires and area burned in mid-summer, followed by decreasing activity in the fall.

Fire is a central part of the life cycle of many Canadian ecosystems. Although fire burns the boreal forest regularly, robust new trees quickly emerge to replace the aged forest. Even as fire kills a mature stand of jack pine (Pinus banksiana), it also opens the seed cones, allowing the species to reproduce and survive. Completing the symbiosis, jack pine grows on dry sites and is highly susceptible to stand- replacing fires. The history of Canada' s boreal forest is a cycle of destruction and renewal by fire.

Fire Management

Fire management in Canada is a provincial responsibility, except on federal lands. The national picture combines 14 agencies with individual fire policies, fire regimes, forest types, and values at risk. Organizations range from government operations to government-managed private contractors and private enterprise. Funding may be from general tax revenue, timber sale revenue, or levies based on land ownership.

Fire exclusion is not physically possible, economically feasible, ecologically desirable, or ultimately tenable in much of Canada. Yet fire cannot be allowed to run its natural course when it threatens lives, property, or valuable resources. Fire policies generally try to balance suppression costs with values at risk and assert that fire should assume a more natural role in managing the landscape.

The following characteristics of Canada's environment, society, and geography have shaped the evolution of fire management:

  • sparse population concentrated along the US border;
  • vast areas to manage with few roads;
  • both high and low value resources and property to protect;
  • limited, high-cost labor;
  • good technological infrastructure;
  • short fire season punctuated with extreme weather;
  • typical stand-replacing fires;

These conditions led to four principles of fire suppression in Canada:

  • reliance on information (fire danger, risk assessment, resource allocation);
  • reliance on equipment (pumps and hose, vehicles, communications);
  • reliance on aircraft (detection, transportation, suppression);
  • rapid mobilization (within agencies, across agencies, internationally).

A typical fire management agency has four functions:

  • Executive - planning, budgeting, and evaluating fire programs such as prevention, suppression, and training;
  • Strategic - monitors fire danger and fire activity, deploys resources across the agency, and authorizes interagency resource movement;
  • Management - daily activities such as readiness, detection, and initial attack dispatch;
  • Operational - transporting crews and equipment to fires, fire suppression, and logistical support.

Faced with extreme situations and decreasing budgets, no agency or nation can be self-sufficient in fire management. In 1982, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre was established to facilitate sharing a national fleet of air tankers among fire agencies. National mobilization of all resources has become fundamental to successful fire management in Canada.

Fire Research

Scientific research has expanded our knowledge of wildland fires. Fire danger can be monitored and fire intensity can be predicted on a national scale. Systems can optimize detection patrol routes and allocate resources efficiently. The natural role of fire in forest ecosystems is becoming increasingly understood. Yet fire management requires far more knowledge about fire and considerably more sophisticated decision making than does fire control. New knowledge and technologies will be needed to support effective fire management in an increasingly complex environment.

Forest fire statistics are reported by provincial, territorial, and federal forest fire management agencies and by Parks Canada.

The original reporting format for annual fire losses has remained virtually unchanged, allowing fire researchers and numerous other interest groups to compare fire season severity over many decades.

The information is presented as follows:

Cause Class Number of Fires
Area Burned
Productivity Class
Maturity Class
Area Burned
Fire Size Class Number of Fires
Area Burned
Month Number of Fires
Area Burned