The story of Coastal Douglas-fir forests: The return of fire to the landscape

Three scientists working in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve share their knowledge of the legacy of fire in the region.

The third and last contribution of Parks Canada to The Story of the Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forests series, three scientists working in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve share their knowledge of the legacy of fire in the region and explore the logistics and challenges of present day fire management.

What is the history of fire in the Coastal Douglas-fir forests?

Historically, fire was one of the primary drivers in the maintenance of healthy Coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forest ecosystems. Contemporary analysis shows that, prior to settler contact, there was a 26- to 41-year fire return interval in forested areas in this region, and a more frequent fire return interval in meadow ecosystems. Evidence of frequent, low-intensity surface fire can be attributed to traditional burning practices done by local Indigenous Peoples, who actively stewarded the land for thousands of years prior to settler contact.

Tree with a burn mark on it.
Evidence of a historic burn seen on SISȻENEM (Halibut Island). Photo by Alex Harris.

Coast Salish Peoples used fire as a tool to enhance food production and to maintain plant and landscape health. For example, camas (Camassia quamash, Camassia leichtlinii) meadows were burned after harvesting bulbs to return nutrients to the soil and to keep meadows open for camas and other culturally-important plants. 

Along with colonial settlement, fire suppression policies were introduced. From historic written accounts and records, it is evident that settlers in this region were not in favour of fire on the landscape. Coast Salish Peoples were prohibited from undertaking the prescribed burning practices that were so integral to maintaining landscape, cultural, and physical health.

Wildfire suppression is necessary in the CDF forest region today, due to population density, and the need to prioritize public safety and protect property. In the CDF zone, many areas are classified as Wildland Urban Interface, which is where homes and community infrastructure are adjacent to forested areas. Due to this proximity, any wildfire has the potential to have significant consequences on human safety and well-being.

Gulf island landscape with the ocean.
Example of the Wildland Urban interface. Photo by Shauna Doll.

The result of past and present fire suppression is the functional eradication of both naturally-ignited and human-caused fire within CDF forest ecological communities. In the absence of fire, these ecosystems have changed dramatically.

How has the recent history of fire suppression in the Coastal Douglas-fir Forest altered the composition and diversity of its characteristic ecological communities?

The lack of recent fire on the landscape has had unintended consequences in CDF forests. In the absence of this critical disturbance factor, these forests look and function very differently than historically. Fire exclusion and suppression have led to a decline in biodiversity and forest resiliency, and have also altered the way any fire would now behave on the landscape.

Previously, the periodic, low-intensity stewardship fires used by Coast Salish Peoples maintained “savannah-like” open areas, characterized by expansive meadows and large, mature trees like Garry oaks that were resistant to low-intensity fires. These regularly-disturbed areas would have been abundant in the range of a diversity of species, many of which are foods and medicines for Coast Salish Peoples.

Chocolate lily (also known as rice root) in the foreground, with Camas and Sea blush blooming in the background. Photo by Alex Harris.

In the absence of regular fire in meadow areas, species like Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) have encroached, where they rapidly overtop and eventually over-shade oaks. Native shrubs like snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) have gradually filled in meadow areas along with invasive plants like Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), gorse (Ulex europaeus), English ivy (Hedera helix) and spurge-laurel (Daphne laureola). 

Second growth forest.
An even-aged conifer forest stand. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Additionally, the absence of regular fire has led to a buildup of coarse woody debris and surface fuel on the forest floor, which can impact the intensity and severity of wildfires. This issue is compounded by the fact that previously-logged second-growth and third-growth forests, which are common in the CDF region, are characterized by densely-spaced, rapidly-growing planted or naturally dispersed saplings that alter the hydrology of the forest systems. These forests are less ecologically-complex than previous forest iterations were, which affects nutrient regimes and soil biota, and results in ecosystems that are less resilient to major disturbances like fire. 

Is there a safe and culturally appropriate way to reintroduce the use of fire as a tool to restore diversity on the landscape? Are there examples of this reintroduction that are working elsewhere?

Both naturally-occurring and human-caused fires have played a role in forest succession in the CDF zone. Fire is an important process in the restoration of healthy and resilient ecosystems. However, re-introducing fire to an ecosystem where it has been absent for over 150 years is not without its challenges, particularly in a region as densely populated as southwestern British Columbia. Nonetheless, while unplanned fires are incompatible with human communities and uses in the CDF, there are opportunities to safely implement planned fires in appropriate areas.

A planned fire, often called a prescribed burn, refers to the intentional and controlled use of fire to achieve specific ecological and social outcomes. Planned fires target specific weather and fuel conditions, and align burning with days that have good venting conditions to reduce the impacts of smoke. Some potential reasons to use planned fires on a landscape include proactive fire management, the maintenance of desirable ecological communities, or spiritual or cultural reasons specific to individual First Nations and Indigenous communities. Planned fire is a tool that is often used in conjunction with other active management strategies. For example, strategic fuel reduction treatments that are followed by prescribed fires can reduce accumulated fuel on the forest floor, mitigating fire risk near communities.

In the CDF zone, fire has been re-introduced to parts of the landscape by Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, the Department of National Defense, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, in collaboration with partners and First Nations. For example, in 2016, a prescribed fire was implemented in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on TEMOSEN (Tumbo Island) as a tool to aid in the restoration of endangered Garry oak ecosystems and culturally-important plants.

Currently, in collaboration with land stewards and knowledge holders from the W̱SÁNEĆ Nations, Parks Canada is planning a small-scale burn on a portion of SḰEḰEŦÁMEN (ska-kwa-thay-min/Eagle Islet), in the lagoon adjacent to Sidney Island. The planned fire on this site aims to reduce the accumulation of fine grass fuels, push back shrubs that are encroaching on meadow habitat, and return nutrients to the soil in order to nurture culturally-important meadow species such as camas.

Research on the re-introduction of prescribed fire elsewhere within our bioregion has indicated that prescribed fire alone is usually not sufficient to restore the structure and diversity of historic meadow plant communities. Unknown seed banks and invasive species may present future challenges. Restoration practitioners implementing prescribed fire must be prepared to address these potential issues. Therefore, the planned burn on SḰEḰEŦÁMEN will be followed by native seed additions, particularly of annual species that have largely disappeared from the site as a result of competition from introduced grass species and thatch accumulation. Follow-up monitoring will be essential to gauge the success in achieving these objectives, and to identify and adapt restoration approaches to new challenges that might arise as a result of the prescribed burn.

Woman using shovel to remove invasive daphne.
Invasive species removal. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What are your ecological management recommendations for those living in the Coastal Douglas-fir Forest region where fire risk is an increasing concern due to climate change?

Fire-resilient landscapes in CDF forests must be actively managed and maintained as the area experiences the impacts of climate change. We can expect hotter, drier summers, leading to an increased risk of wildfires. On a small scale, active management can include removing invasive species, pruning branches, or planting native, fire-adapted plant species. 

Restoration projects that include the use of planned fire can mimic, and to an extent restore, the effects of CDF forest’s former fire regime. As mentioned above, the low-intensity fires historic to this area kept unique CDF ecosystems healthy and diverse. Ultimately, returning fire back to these landscapes involves the application of both Western and Indigenous land management practices and knowledge. Collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fire stewards should be a focus. As we face the challenges of an uncertain future and the threats of climate change, we need to work together and draw on the strengths of diverse knowledge systems.

About the authors

Jay Zakaluzny is a Fire Management Officer with over 20 years of wildland fire experience. He currently leads the Coastal BC fire management program for Parks Canada. This work includes prevention, response, wildfire risk reduction and prescribed fire use. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Geography from the University of Saskatchewan and an Environmental Science Diploma from Lethbridge College. He grew up in Treaty 4 territory in present-day southern Saskatchewan where his interest in landscape-level conservation and fire use took root.

Lauren Baird is a Fire Technician at Parks Canada. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from the University of Alberta, and a Diploma in Forest Technology from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. She started her career in fire management as a fire crew member in 2014. Eight seasons later, after diverse experiences with several provincial wildfire agencies, she is broadening her skills through work with Parks Canada. When she isn’t covered in ash, she likes to go trail running, and be out in the garden at her home in Sidney/SET,TINES.

Aimee Pelletier is a Partnering and Engagement Officer at Parks Canada, working with the Growing Together restoration project to collaboratively restore fire to SḰEḰEŦÁMEN (Eagle Islet) and recover species at risk within Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. She has a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and a Bachelor of Education from the University of British Columbia as well as a Master of Environmental Studies from Dalhousie University. She grew up in northwestern Ontario, on Treaty 3 Territory, forging a passion for conservation (especially plants!) through canoe-tripping and summer jobs with Ontario Parks. You can most often find her in her native plant gardens, watching pollinators.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
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