Fire Programs: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you have a BURNING question? Search through our Frequently Asked Questions for an answer. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Then ask our experts!

What is a Fire Danger Level?

The fire danger level is a tool that is used to determine how easy it is to ignite vegetation, how difficult a fire may be to control and how much a fire may spread. Each level has a distinct definition:

What is the danger level?

Low (Blue): Fires likely to be self-extinguishing and new ignitions unlikely. Any existing fires limited to smoldering in deep, drier layers.

Moderate (Green): Creeping or gentle surface fires. Fires easily contained by ground crews with pumps and hand tools.

High (Yellow): Moderate to vigorous surface fire with intermittent crown involvement. Challenging for ground crews to handle; heavy equipment (bulldozers, tanker trucks, aircraft) often required to contain fire.

Very-High (Orange): High-intensity fire with partial to full crown involvement. Head fire conditions beyond the ability of ground crews; air attack with retardant required to effectively attack fire's head.

Extreme (Red): Fast-spreading, high-intensity crown fire. Very difficult to control. Suppression actions limited to flanks, with only indirect actions possible against the fire's head.

Can I visit the park while a wildfire or prescribed fire is happening?

Yes. Prescribed fires are planned so they do not conflict with any public activities. As well, prescribed fires are conducted in weather conditions that disperse smoke away from developed areas as much as possible. Although smoke may be seen and smelled from various areas, park staff plan and control these fires to ensure they do not impact visitors. However, visitors may be asked to refrain from certain types of back country activities in key locations during certain phases of the prescribed fire.

Parks Canada provides advanced warning prior to, and during prescribed fires as well as up to date information on wildfires and potential impacts. Visitors and local residents can call the park at (867) 621-0136 for fire updates.

If I spot a wildfire in the park, what should I do?

Parks Canada provides advanced warning prior to and during prescribed fires to all visitors and local residents. However, wildfires can be quite unpredictable and can spread quickly in various directions. It is essential that you do not try to extinguish the fire yourself, but rather keep a safe distance and follow these three steps:

Observe: Take note of where the fire is located. Also, take note of what the fire is doing. Do you see flames? If so, is it mostly on the ground or at the top of the trees? What colour is the smoke? How much smoke is there? (i.e. a column of smoke or is a whole area hazy with smoke?). This information will greatly assist in deciding what equipment and resources the fire crews need to get to the fire as quickly as possible.

Report: Inform park staff as soon as possible about the wildfire’s location and observations. You can call the park office at: (867) 621-0136 and speak to the Resource Conservation office, or go to the visitor’s centre or kiosk.

Stay Alert: Wind can carry burning ambers great distances and smoke can cover an area quickly. Park staff will provide you with directions for the safest route to take to avoid any fire hazards.

How long does it take to see the benefits of fire?

You can see the benefits of fire almost immediately. Soil receives an instant boost of nutrients and new types of vegetation sprout within a few weeks of the fire. A variety of herbs, shrubs and tree saplings flourish, providing abundant browse for moose and hares. Fallen trees that die as a result of the fire provide habitat for small mammals and insects, which in turn attract other predatory species. For several years after the fire, the diversity of plants and animals found within burned areas is usually much higher than that of mature forests.

Natural Processes

Forces of change shape our natural landscapes. Some forces, like the gradual uplift of the mountains, act slowly. Others such as fire, flood, windstorms, avalanches and insect outbreaks can rapidly restructure ecosystems. Although we often view natural disturbances as destructive, they play a crucial role in keeping ecosystems healthy.

Fire As A Force Of Change

Through time, fire has acted in synergy with other natural processes to shape ecosystems on many levels. Humans, too, have used fire for millennia to improve habitat for game animals or to stimulate food production. Here are a few ways fire continues to affect the landscape:
  • Creating Mosaics and Diversity
    fire mosaic
    Forest Diversity
    Fire produces a mosaic of different ages and types of plants. Fires typically burn across the land with varying intensities and effects on vegetation due to differences in terrain, winds and the amount of fuel present. This creates a range of habitats that support diverse wildlife.
  • Nourishing Soil The high mineral content in ash improves soil nutrients. This flush of nutrients, along with warm soil conditions, can increase soil’s microbial activity and plant regrowth. Periodic fire reduces the build up of dead wood, branches and plant litter.   This lessens the risk of extremely large, hot fires that can damage soil fertility and result in erosion.
  • Plant Survival Where wildfires occur regularly (as in Canada’s boreal forests and much of the Rocky Mountain forests), plants have evolved successful adaptations for surviving fire. Some plants actually need fire to reproduce. Plant adaptations to fire include increased seed release, increased flowering and fruiting, fire resistant bark and buds, and resprouting from underground root systems.
  • Wildlife Survival
    In the short term, wildlife can die, be displaced or even be attracted to fire. The responses to fire are as different as the animals themselves. Some animals survive by outrunning fire or by going underground. Some may perish, usually by suffocation.  In the long term, fire increases the variety of habitats across a landscape. It also increases the abundance of habitats and food sources for animals like moose, grizzly bears, warblers, woodpeckers, and meadow voles. In some grassland areas, fire restores habitat by pushing back invading brush and trees. Natural processes act as nature’s recycler, rejuvenator and re-arranger. Vegetation killed by a natural disturbance decays, releasing and recycling nutrients to other plants. Surviving plants are re-invigorated, while the open spaces that natural processes create are quickly rejuvenated by new or recolonizing plant life. On a landscape level, natural processes rearrange plant communities by creating a patchwork of different ages and species. This patchwork creates habitat for more species of wildlife. This brings variety to the ecosystem, making it more resilient.


Can fire have a negative impact?

Fire does impact wildlife, habitat as well as people, but it is essential to understand that the long term benefits greatly outweigh the short-term impacts. Wildfires can lead to highway and railway closures, restrictions on recreational activities, and have impacts on human health and property. In the ecosystem, some plants and trees will not survive the intense heat and flames. Some animals may be displaced while others may not be able to get out of harm’s way or may succumb to the smoke. Heavy rains following a fire can wash ash sediments into streams and ponds, impacting fish and aquatic invertebrates.

Although these short term effects are always a concern, forest fires are about rejuvenation, not destruction. Fire is a natural process that brings many benefits to the ecosystem and wildlife. It produces new habitats for wildlife and an abundance of new vegetation. Research has shown that ecosystems have more biodiversity within the first 5-10 years after a fire than mature forests.

Managing fires is a question of balance: knowing when to contain, when to extinguish a fire to minimize damages, or when to initiate prescribed fires to help restore natural processes and prevent large destructive fires. In all cases, Wood Buffalo staff use the best knowledge and research available to achieve a healthy balance.

Canada's national parks were created to protect examples of our natural landscapes.  In the far reaching words of the 1930 National Parks Act, "parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for future generations." Traditionally, we have viewed national parks as pristine areas protected by their boundaries from outside influences. Today, a different approach is needed. No protected areas remain untouched by human activities. Many parks contain highways and developments. Even remote areas are influenced by long-range pollutants and global warming. Outside parks, much of the landscape is devoted to forestry, agriculture and expanding human settlement. Clearly, national parks cannot be fully protected by lines drawn on a map. Few parks contain complete or unaltered ecosystems. They are part of larger landscapes and depend on the ecological well-being of these areas. Today, we need a conservation approach that recognises the connections between humans and ecosystems. Ecosystem management is such an approach.

What is an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community of plants and animals and the processes, like the flow of energy through food chains, that link them to each other and to the physical environment. The term 'ecosystem' comes from the Greek 'oikos' and means 'home system'. Home for a beetle may be a rotting log; home for a grizzly, a territory of thousands of square kilometres. Ecosystems can be large or small; a region, a watershed, or even a single tree. Regardless of size, these systems contain a tremendous variety of species and habitats. Ecosystems continually change over time. Some changes are slow; for example, the gradual adjustment of vegetation to climate fluctuations. Other events, like fire, flood or drought may cause rapid changes. Ecosystems are resilient; they can adjust to natural disturbances and continue to function.

What do we mean by ecosystem integrity?

Ecosystem integrity is a little like human health. The state of health, or integrity, is one where the body, or ecosystem, is complete and functions properly. To have integrity, an ecosystem must have all its native species, complete food webs and naturally functioning ecological processes. Moreover, it must be able to persist over time. Just as people under stress may develop disease, ecosystems under stress can suffer damage. Human activities can stress ecosystems by making rapid changes they cannot adjust to. Symptoms such as the loss of a species or the inability to retain nutrients may signal the breakdown of ecosystem integrity.

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity (short for biological diversity) refers to the variety of life. It occurs at different levels:

  • Species diversity refers to the variety of plant and animal species found in an area. It is important for ecosystem functioning because if one species disappears, so may others that depend on it.
  • Genetic diversity refers to the variation among individuals of the same species. Populations that are genetically diverse can adapt to changing conditions. For example, some individual pines have the ability to resist pine beetle attacks. This means at least some trees will survive beetle epidemics.
  • Landscape diversity refers to the variety of biological communities in a landscape. Fire contributes to landscape diversity by creating a mosaic of different ages and types of vegetation. This variety of habitats, in turn, supports many different kinds of animals. Around the world, biodiversity is declining in response to human activities. Not only species, but entire ecosystems are disappearing. National parks are becoming increasingly important in the global effort to conserve biodiversity, but they cannot do it alone!

What is Ecosystem Management?

Instead of focusing exclusively inside park boundaries or on a particular species, ecosystem management bases decisions on an understanding of the ecosystem as a whole. The goal of ecosystem management is ecological integrity, which includes sustaining native biodiversity. The Canada National Parks Act now makes this a mandated responsibility. Ecosystem Management is a holistic approach. It recognises that the well-being of parks, as well as human communities, depends on the ecological state of larger landscapes. Ecosystem management involves working with other agencies and groups. It considers the social and economic needs of a region within the framework of preserving ecosystem integrity. We do not completely understand ecosystems,  yet still must make decisions. Managers are guided by current information. This may come from science or traditional knowledge. Actions are monitored and the approach is adapted as new information becomes available. To succeed, ecosystem management relies on social consensus. It is based on a set of values that regards humans as part of interconnected living systems. Ecosystem management provides an opportunity for humans to understand and fit in with nature. In doing so, it strives to ensure the long term survival of the great diversity of life on this planet.

How does smoke from forest fires affect park visitors and local communities?

Smoke affects people in varying degrees: people with existing heart or respiratory diseases are more susceptible to the smoke’s effects. There may also be an increased risk to older adults, children and pregnant women.

Fire managers make every attempt to ignite prescribed fires on days with good vertical ventilation (Upward movement of air, that helps create a straight smoke column) to minimize the impact of smoke on visitors and residents. Unlike prescribed fires, wildfires often burn during poor venting conditions and release more unpredictable amounts of smoke. If a fire burns for days or weeks, it is hard to predict where the smoke will go.

Parks Canada provides advanced warning prior to, and during prescribed fires as well as up to date information on wildfires and potential impacts. Visitors and local residents can call the park at (867) 621-0136 for fire updates.


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