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The cleansing power of fire

The Story

The aftermath of a forest fire looks devastating, with hectares of charred tree stumps and no sign of life. But just three months later, the forest is alive again. The heat of the fire melts the resin that seals pinecones and new seeds take root in a forest floor now clear of debris. CBC reporter Kelly Crowe learns that rangers are taking a more relaxed stance to forest fires than in the past, battling blazes only when they threaten people, property and valuable timber.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Aug. 14, 1998
Guest(s): Ian Pengelly, Rick Strickland, Tom Varty
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Kelly Crowe
Duration: 2:50

Did You know?

• Fires naturally burn through a forest every five to 25 years. But when those fires are aggressively extinguished - or prevented from starting - the stage is set for a more devastating fire later on. Forest clutter piles up, creating a ladder of fuel that allows fire to climb higher, burn hotter and destroy virtually everything in its path. Cooler-burning natural fires, however, kill only less mature trees and clear the forest canopy, allowing sunlight through so that other plant species thrive on the forest floor.

• Fires have been part of the forest's life cycle ever since the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago.
• Several species, including lodgepole pine, jack pine and Douglas fir, have evolved to take advantage of fire's heat. Their pinecones release seeds onto a seed bed made rich in nutrients by ashes left behind by the fire.
• Forest animals can also benefit from fire. Beetles burrow into burned tree trunks and make excellent food for foraging woodpeckers.

• The practice of prescribed burning involves deliberately setting controlled fires in order to prevent future, more devastating forest fires.
• Prescribed fires have also been used to eliminate weeds, insects and fungi that damage vegetation, and to stimulate growth of wild blueberries.
• Grassland areas also use prescribed fires to improve the quality of grass for grazing animals and to control brush that can fuel a larger fire.

• Canada's aboriginal people used fire to clear grasslands and herd nomadic animals.
• Early settlers also used fire to clear land for homesteading. But these fires often got out of control, killing people and destroying homes.
• Canada's first laws against setting forest fires were passed in 1761 in Nova Scotia, in 1870 in Quebec and in 1878 in Ontario.

• Prescribed fires are typically planned up to a year in advance in places like Banff National Park. Crews wait until conditions are right - typically in late spring - and move through the area with torches. In more remote areas, helicopters drop small ball-sized igniters in key areas.
• Even urban forests can benefit from prescribed fires. The city of Windsor uses them regularly in its nature-preserve parks and Toronto city officials began regular prescribed burns in High Park in 1997.


Fighting Forest Fires more