25 Apr 2011, 8:33am
Ecology History Management
by admin

Burning at the edge: integrating biophysical and eco-cultural fire processes in Canada’s parks and protected areas

White, C.A., D.D.B. Perrakis, V.G. Kafka, and T. Ennis. 2011. Burning at the edge: integrating biophysical and eco-cultural fire processes in Canada’s parks and protected areas. Fire Ecology 7(1): 74-106.

Full text [here] (2.57 MB)

Selected excerpts:


Currently, high intensity, large-area lightning fires that burn during droughts dominate Canada’s fire regimes. However, studies from several disciplines clearly show that humans historically ignited burns within this matrix of large fires. Two approaches for fire research and management have arisen from this pattern: a “large-fire biophysical paradigm” related to lightning-ignited fires, and an “eco-cultural paradigm” related to human-caused burning. Working at the edge between biophysically driven fires and eco-cultural burns, and their associated management and research paradigms, presents unique challenges to land managers. We proceed by describing fire frequency trends across Canada, and how an interaction between changing climatic and cultural factors may provide better causal explanations for observed patterns than either group of factors alone. We then describe four case histories of fire restoration into Canadian landscapes moving through evolution, or deliberate intent, towards increasing emphasis on an eco-cultural paradigm. We show that use of cultural burns maintains this facet of the long-term regime while providing greater capacity for larger, higher intensity fires to occur with fewer negative ecological and socio-economic implications. Key lessons learned by practitioners restoring fire to landscapes include: 1) fire is only one process in ecosystems that also include other complex interactions, and thus restoration of fire alone could have unintended consequences in some ecosystems; 2) recognizing long-term human roles of not only fire managers, but also hunters and gatherers is critical in restoration programs; and 3) this diversity of past, present, and future ecological and cultural interactions with fire can link managers to a broad constituency of stakeholders. Bringing this variety of people and interests into the decision-making processes is a necessary pre-requisite to successful fire management at the edge.


Wildland fire is a dominant ecological process across Canada. Fire plays a critical role in maintaining characteristic vegetation communities within Canadian ecozones (Figure 1), including the grasslands of the Prairies, subalpine and dry interior forests of the Montane Cordillera, mixed conifer and deciduous forests of the Boreal Plains and Shield, and the eastern hardwood and pine forests of the Mixedwood Plains in southeastern Canada and the Atlantic Maritime ecozones (Stocks et al. 2003, Pyne 2007).

Although fire suppression is the primary land management objective in most of Canada, an average of over 2 million hectares burned annually from 1959 through 1997, with up to 7 million hectares burning in major fire years. During this period, burn area was dominated by large fires (>200 ha). Although these burns represented only 3 % of the total number of fires, they burned 97 % of the area (Stocks et al. 2003).

The current regime of large, high-intensity fire is thus understandably the focus of Canadian forest fire researchers and managers. The prevailing “large fire, biophysical paradigm” centers attention on lightning strikes that currently ignite the majority of these burns (e.g., Nash and Johnson 1996)…

From our experience, contemporary researchers and managers working on the basis of the biophysical paradigm tend to conceptualize that lightning ignitions have long burned the majority of the area in many Canadian ecozones (for argument, say >75 %), and for various reasons do not believe that human ignitions could have substantially contributed to historic fire regimes in most areas (e.g., Johnson et al. 1998, Bergeron et al. 2004a).

However important the biophysical role of fire is today, anthropological and historical research throughout Canada shows that, in the past, human attention focused more on an ecological and cultural importance of fire (Pyne 2007). For more than ten millennia, First Nations of indigenous peoples have occupied almost all areas of Canada, with population density highest in more southern areas (McMillan 1995). Studies clearly show that humans set low intensity fires that burned over the long term within the larger matrix of fires (Lewis and Ferguson 1988, Turner 1999). Historically, at least in some areas, human use, not suppression, of fire was more significant. Fire was an easily available tool that could be routinely used for purposes ranging from altering wildlife habitat, to improving berry crops, to warfare (Boyd 1999, Stewart 2002). People living on the land understood fire’s role intimately, and because it was their most powerful tool to change landscapes, integrated this understanding into daily decisions for survival. …

…[C]urrent researchers or managers working with fire based upon an eco-cultural paradigm usually conceptualize that ignitions by humans historically burned only a minor portion of most ecosystems (say 2 m after fire forced a re-evaluation of the program (Pyne 2004, 2007; White and Fisher 2007). A detailed review of the park’s long-term ecosystem states and processes concluded that a wide range of anthropogenic changes in the ecosystem, including reduced hunting by humans, predator control, and high human-use levels (that displaced wary predators) had allowed elk (Cervus elaphus L.) densities to increase beyond long-term norms (Kay and White 1995). Fire and ongoing high elk herbivory, in combination with prescribed fire, could actually eliminate some aspen stands (White et al. 1998). In addition, a major review of park land use practices recommended that ecological restoration would require a wide range of actions to manage human use to restore long-term ecosystem conditions (White and Fisher 2007). As a result, in the past decade, park ecological restoration has taken a much stronger eco-cultural focus (White and Fisher 2007). Researchers are working with Stoney-Nakoda elders to document pre-park establishment landscape use patterns (S. McGarvey, McMaster University, personal communication). First Nations representatives routinely attend park advisory committee meetings and are assisting park managers in culling human-habituated elk. Long-term patterns of human burning are of strong interest to fire managers. The current hypothesis is that high historic fire frequency on southwest-facing slopes and valley bottoms may be the result of First Nations’ burning to maintain bison habitat (White et al. 2002). …

Eco-cultural relationships dominate the approach taken by researchers and managers restoring fire to Garry oak (Quercus garryana Douglas ex Hook.) woodlands in protected areas within the Pacific Maritime ecozone such as the Cowichan Gary Oak Preserve and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (Figure 2). The eco-cultural focus occurs because of strong recognition of First Nations’ cultural practices in the area, the relatively infrequent occurrence of lightning fire, the small area of parks surrounded by urbanization or occurring on islands that will not likely be burned by large wildfires, and the numerous rare species that may have high fire dependence (Turner 1999, Pellet et al. 2007, Bjorkman and Vellend 2010).

In combination with biophysical studies on fuels, weather, lightning, and charcoal accumulation patterns (Pellatt et al. 2007), researchers have focused on First Nations’ traditional knowledge of important resources such as camas (Camassia Lindl.) and how resource availability could be enhanced or sustained by cultural practices such as fire use (Turner 1999, Turner et al. 2003, Beckwith 2004). This work documents a legacy of knowledge accumulated through hundreds of generations of people living in and manipulating these ecosystems. However, fire restoration work in this ecozone remains limited. In cooperation with Hul’qumi’num First Nation, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC) managers of the Cowichan Gary Oak Preserve do small burns in plots linked to research programs at several Canadian universities. The NCC conducted conducted three management-scale burns in 2009. The Hul’qumi’num are routinely involved in the restoration, including the first post-European contact harvesting of camas that were stimulated by prescribed burning, several annual culturally focused school tours, and employment of band members by the NCC for burn planning and monitoring. The NCC staff provided in-kind work on First Nation lands in exchange for restoration assistance on the nature preserve.


Fire practitioners in Canadian parks and protected areas are stewards of combined eco-culturally and biophysically driven fire regimes. Similar to earlier generations of First Nations, today’s land managers face the same issue in maintaining eco-culturally important patches of relatively frequent, low-intensity fire dependent ecosystems within a landscape matrix of less frequent, large area, high-intensity fire. From the above case histories, it appears that managers are recognizing significant spatial and temporal interactions on the edge between these two general fire regimes. Moreover, managers are rediscovering First Nations’ traditional ecosystem knowledge of the human actions that were most practical for fire use in these northern regions where high-intensity fires are a dominant ecological force (Lewis and Ferguson 1988).

Management fires lit under an eco-cultural paradigm maintain an important component of the long-term regime while providing greater capacity for larger, higher intensity fires to occur with few negative ecological and socio-economic implications. Key lessons learned to date include:

• Fire is only one process in complex ecosystems that include human effects, predator and prey relationships, competition between species, herbivore browsing, and numerous other interactions. Thus, restoring fire cannot be done in isolation. It must be done in the context of a holistic ecosystem restoration (Pyne 2007: 472-73, White and Fisher 2007).

• Recognizing long-term human roles as not only fire managers, but also hunters, gatherers, and cultivators is critical in restoration programs. However, ongoing studies and participation of First Nations in park management suggest that use of traditional knowledge should be treated as an ongoing process (Pierotti and Wildcat 2000). In some locations in Canada, it has been several generations since native peoples lived on the land. It will likely take active experimentation and learning for First Nations and interdisciplinary researchers to rediscover lost cultural practices and integrate them into modern park management programs (Turner et al. 2003, Lepofsky and Lertzman 2008).

• As fire programs scale up to a landscape level, managers are beginning to observe the interactions predicted between eco-cultural and biophysically driven fire regimes. For example, Parks Canada now allows some spring-season, human-ignited fires to burn into drought periods later in the year, with careful monitoring and periodic containment actions. Since 1990, these multi-season burns are now the largest single source of area burned in national parks on the eastern slopes of the Montane Cordillera ecozone (Brian Low, Parks Canada, unpublished data). Moreover, anthropogenic burns are becoming important influences on the burning patterns of subsequent mid-summer high-intensity fires caused by lightning (Walker and Taylor 2004).

• The diverse eco-cultural fire and biophysical interactions with ecosystem components (e.g., eastern white pine, bison, trembling aspen, elk, grizzly bears, and camas) that have importance to past and current peoples link fire managers to a broad constituency of stakeholders. Bringing this variety of people and interests into the political decision-making processes (Pierotti and Wildcat 2000) is a necessary pre-requisite to successful fire management “at the edge” between smaller eco-cultural fires, and large, landscape level biophysically driven fires. …


Managers attempting to restore fire to Canada’s landscapes are constrained by patterns of ignition, fuel, topography, weather, and potential for high-intensity fires that confronted First Nations prior to the modern fire suppression period. Increasingly, today’s researchers and managers are consulting First Nations’ elders whose ancestors have 10 millennia of fire experience in Canadian ecosystems (Parks Canada 2000). Because interests of today’s park managers and long-term cultures may be similar (e.g., maintain biodiversity without destroying important human values), their approaches may become increasingly similar as fire management programs evolve.

Modern Canadian land use and political values limit human fire use within protected areas, likely to levels below historical conditions. Large fires caused mainly by lightning and unplanned human-ignitions will continue to burn most of the area, albeit also at reduced levels from historic conditions. However, ecosystem management of protected areas in Canada and other areas of the world is gradually evolving to recognize human’s important long-term influence on biophysical, ecological, and fire regime processes. This recognition enhances opportunities to re-engage humans in their important role in ecosystem restoration and stewardship. This process of re-engagement is essential for successfully managing processes such as fire that require strong stakeholder understanding and political support.

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