Wildlife returns as forest regenerates after Fort McMurray wildfire

University of Alberta researchers are already beginning to see small signs of life creeping back into the forests surrounding Fort McMurray. Some animals returned before the smoke even settled after the wildfire.

University of Alberta researchers are studying the first animals to return to the charred forest

Studying the forests recovery after the Fort McMurray wildfire

7 years ago
Duration 2:20
Featured VideoU of A researchers study the return of birds and insects in the area burned in the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Standing in a burned-out bog near Fort McMurray, University of Alberta researcher Hedwig Lankau is surrounded by small signs of life.

The damp bog is one of her favourite places to explore, after a wildfire changes its ecosystem.

"I find that after the fire it's different, but it's beautiful and it represents that new beginning," Lankau says.

Researchers were already studying the forests around Fort McMurray before a massive wildfire tore through in May, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate the city. 

But the wildfire presents a unique opportunity to study the natural cycle of the forest.

Animals slowly returning

"The boreal forest is called a shifting mosaic, it's basically fire-maintained." says U of A PhD student Elly Knight. 

"It has a fire cycle of a hundred years. One patch burns and then it grows up and then another patch burns, so that mosaic of forest ages shifts over time, and the distribution of species on the land shifts with it."

The first critter to return to the burned areas is the longhorn beetle, which comes back even before the smoke settles.

The beetles lay their eggs in the warm wood and thrive in burned areas.

Shortly after, birds like the common nighthawk arrive. 

Knight is studying the common nighthawk. This bird is considered a post fire specialist in the boreal forest, and it's also on Canada's threatened species list.

The open woodland created after a wildfire is its preferred habitat — it chooses the area for the abundance of food.

As the forest grows and matures, the beetles and the birds that follow move on to more freshly burned areas.

But wildfires don't destroy everything in their path, Lankau says. 

"You can see how it is completely charred to the mineral soil but ... over there there is this big island and the fire went on both sides of it, and in there the trees are all green and the birds are doing their usual thing."

Learning how fires affect forest regeneration

Research on these creatures will focus on migration patterns, diet and habitat, and well as the overall impact of the wildfire on the forest. 

There's much to be learned from how forests regenerate after the Fort McMurray wildfire, Knight says. 

"Some people think that with climate change the boreal forest is going to begin to experience shorter fire cycles. So increased fire frequencies, things are hotter, drier, they burn more," Knight says.

"So ... the boreal landscape may, on average, become a younger forest because of that increased fire frequency."

With files from Sylvain Bascaron