Ice and Fire

Celebrating Waterton’s renewal.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Winter: trees stand leafless in the snow and animals seek shelter from bitter winds. Most birds have left. Of those that stay, many survive by scavenging the remains of the season’s victims. Nights are long, days are barren.

Winter can be as hard on us as on other living things. But we are a determined and optimistic species. At the darkest time of the year we decorate our homes with light and colour. We invite family and friends to elaborate feasts. This may be a season of scarcity, but we are defiant. We splurge on gifts as if abundance will never end.

Complicit in our stubborn refusal to surrender to the season are the evergreens: spruce, fir, pine and other trees that keep their green foliage through the winter. Many Canadian homes greet the winter solstice with a sweet-scented tree in the living room, a promise of nature’s future abundance.

This September past, however, most of the evergreens in Waterton Lakes National Park burned up. For a few days the Kenow fire dominated Alberta news, just as last year’s Fort McMurray wildfire and the 2011 Slave Lake fire took over our collective consciousness as other forests exploded into flame and smoke. Waterton’s Christmas will be less a white one this year than a grey one, as the park’s famous winds whip charred tree bark and ash across the snow. Winter is hard, and this winter in Waterton will be harder still.

Winter may be a time of dying, when hypothermia, starvation and freezing are constant threats, but we know how to get through it. Fire is another matter. Prairie, parkland, northern forests and mountain fastnesses: for millennia fire has shaped and renewed all our Alberta places. But each fire still comes as a shock. We seem incapable of seeing nature’s flames as bringing renewal, only disaster.

As this year’s Waterton fire came to its end, the area’s Member of Parliament took a helicopter tour of the park. In a social media video, Foothills MP John Barlow said, predictably, “The damage to Waterton is devastating,” and added that 70 per cent of the park’s forests were lost. That’s how we always talk about wildfire.

The emphasis on damage is warranted where fences, buildings and houses are concerned. Five homes burned down outside the park. But real-time rhetoric around fire usually fails to acknowledge that those flames are both natural and necessary for nature. Fire, like winter, wind, floods and rain, is an ecological process that helps define and renew our natural places. It’s only a problem when we put flammable structures in its way.

Freed from competition for sun and water, the forest floor will erupt in greenery. Over the next few years mice, voles, hawk owls and foxes will follow.

I visited Waterton on September 23 while the fire was still smouldering. Bright green spikes of fescue and oatgrass were already sprouting from blackened prairie. Bluebirds, killdeers and meadowlarks foraged among the ashes before their migration south, fattening on scorched insects. Biologists monitoring the burn told me that no Waterton bear went to bed hungry this winter; they had gorged on carrion from animals that didn’t escape the flames.

Next spring, park visitors will marvel at the bright green grass sprouting across blackened hills. Millions of aspen and poplar sprouts will rise through the ashes from unburned root systems. Ground squirrels will emerge from their fireproof burrows to blink in the spring sunshine; eagles and hawks will be waiting. Pine cones, opened by the fire’s heat, will shed seeds into potassium-rich ash and scorched organic material, starting a next generation. Unburned patches, of which there are many, will welcome returning migratory birds. The elk, sheep and deer that shelter there will feed on new green growth on the nearby hillsides.

Insects, attracted by the scent of dead wood, will invade the standing spars and lay eggs. Woodpeckers will follow, including the rare black-backed woodpecker that relies on fire to create its preferred habitat. In a few years, woodpecker holes will house bats, flying squirrels and bluebirds. Freed temporarily from competition for sun and water, the forest floor will erupt in greenery. Over the next few years mice, voles, hawk owls and foxes will follow.

It will be a different place, but a living place. Waterton was not destroyed—it was renewed, just as it has been repeatedly before. In 1998 another lightning-caused fire swept through the eastern part of the park. That earlier burn is now a green jungle of life. The forests that burned in 1998 and 2017 had sprouted after earlier fires. So it goes.

If there were no fires, we would have no Christmas trees. They evolved together. While we huddle against the cold this solstice season we should celebrate Waterton’s renewal by fire. For all the stress, fear and property losses it caused, it was nature’s gift to us. One of many.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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