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Using Fire as a Tool

Conserving grasslands in Elk Island National Park through prescribed fires

Each year, fires in Alberta continue to become more frequent and have more devastating effects. In an effort to stem the harmful effects of uncontrolled fire events, Elk Island National Park (EINP) is showcasing their leadership in improving park ecosystems and restoring grasslands through fire management practices including prescribed fires. Keep reading to learn more about EINP’s upcoming Shirley Lake Prescribed Fire project and how prescribed fire can be beneficial in natural area management. 

Fire is a natural part of ecosystems and an essential element in the creation and maintenance of habitat. But the more frequent, higher intensity fires we are seeing in Alberta each summer are having devastating effects on our wildlife, watersheds and ecosystems. To mitigate these negative impacts, some landscape managers are using prescribed fires to improve or maintain habitat for a large variety of wildlife and plant species. 

Prescribed fire is a positive disturbance for fire-dependent ecosystems that releases nutrients and creates a mosaic of ecosystems that support diverse plants and wildlife. In addition, by removing fine fuels in open areas, prescribed fires help reduce the size and intensity of future wildfires that potentially threaten the entire ecosystem.

Parks Canada, a partner in the Beaver Hills Biosphere, is a recognized leader in conservation that takes actions to preserve national parks. At Elk Island National Park (EINP), in the heart of the Beaver Hills Biosphere, prescribed fire is one tool Parks Canada is using to manage the landscape and achieve specific ecosystem objectives.

“We have a long history of conducting prescribed fires as well as fire suppression activities at Elk Island National Park,” shares Erin Elliott, Parks Canada Public Education and Outreach Officer at EINP. “The most recent prescribed fire at the Park occurred in 2001 and was 41 hectares.” In the twenty years following the 2001 prescribed fire, fire suppression and other initiatives have been used to manage the ecosystems in the Park.

Another prescribed fire is planned for Shirley Lake in the northwest area of the Park. This 219-hectare project contained by the Park boundary to the north and west will contribute to the rejuvenation of the grassland areas by returning the process of fire to the landscape.

While fires can often be viewed as negative occurrences, the benefits of fire to grasslands (a critically endangered ecosystem) are immense. In fact, ecological monitoring in the Park found that grassland health had declined.

“The Shirley Lake Prescribed Fire will benefit grasslands by returning nutrients to the soil and enabling certain plant species who require fire to complete their life cycles,” adds Erin.

Biosphere reserves are intended to be functioning landscape models that demonstrate innovative, collaborative approaches to living and working in harmony with nature. A partner in the Beaver Hills Biosphere since its inception, Parks Canada’s fire management strategies and their many other conservation, recreation and monitoring activities at EINP exemplify the biosphere philosophy. Learn more.

What you need to know about prescribed fire

Prescribed fires are planned very carefully by Parks Canada by taking into consideration the appropriate weather and fuel (vegetation) conditions. For each prescribed fire, a detailed plan is developed, reviewed and approved by fire specialists. To prepare for unexpected weather, contingencies are built into every plan and safety is always the first consideration.

Prescribed fires at EINP are only conducted under exacting conditions (e.g., weather, moisture, wind direction, supporting resources, etc.) and will only go forward when the safety of people, park infrastructure and neighbouring lands can be assured.

The smoke impact to the area is short term. Depending on wind speed, direction and how well the smoke vents upward, some smoke may linger on days during the smoldering period of the fire. Signage is posted along the roadways and motorists are asked to slow down, be aware of surroundings and use hazard lights to alert other drivers to slow down.

Information about the Shirley Lake prescribed fire is available on the Elk Island National Park website and will be posted throughout the Park in advance.