While certainly a threat to public safety and property, forest fires have an important role to play in the life of a forest. Here are five answers to the big questions surrounding wildland fires:
- How do fires start?
Lightning is often the cause of wildland fires in more remote regions during the summer when dry conditions can persist. But Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) estimates that more than half of a season’s fires can be attributed to human causes like a spark from machinery to carelessness in the form of unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes and uncontrolled yard waste burns. But for Canada’s boreal forest, the main ignitor is lightning.
See a live map of current lightning activity in Canada.
- How do they spread so quickly?
Beyond a source of ignition, wildland fires also need dry fuel and hot, dry, windy weather. And to continue to burn, they need heat, oxygen, and fuel (this is known as the fire triangle). Once ignited, fires can move quickly – up to 23 kph by some estimates. And depending on the amount and type of fuel available, the weather and the topography, a fire can continue to spread. The heat from the existing burn causes the moisture in the adjacent fuel to evaporate so that it becomes easier to ignite. Wind provides the flames with oxygen and pushes the fire across a landscape at a faster rate. A large fire will also create a wind of its own, sometimes as much as 10 times faster than the ambient wind, which will propel embers high into the air to start fires in other areas.
- Are all fires as dramatic as the images we see in the news?
No. There are essentially three different types of fires. The ones you see most often in images and news reports are called crown fires because they burn up to the top of a tree. These ones are considered most dangerous. Surface fires burn fuel elements like dried leaves, branches and pine needles on the forest floor. They tend to be easier to control and put out. The last one, the ground fire, is a subsurface fire that can even occur underground where there are deep accumulations of dead vegetation that have become dry enough to burn. These ones tend to smoulder for long periods.
Watch a high-intensity crown fire from the ground as it moves through an area.
- What is the role of fire in forest ecology?
In a word, it’s about diversity. And particularly for the boreal, which is composed of everything from pure deciduous to mixed deciduous-coniferous to pure coniferous. Decay doesn’t occur as quickly under the boreal’s cool temperate conditions as it might in warmer, more humid climates so fire is a natural way to convert the branches, logs and leaves on the ground to a mineral-rich ash. This releases and recycles nutrients.
The gaps in the forest created by fire also allow sun to penetrate and stimulate the growth of pioneer species like aspen, white birch, jack pine and lodgepole pine. If fire does not occur in this same forest over the next 100 years, black spruce will flourish in the shade these pioneer species provide.
And as birds carry seeds to new areas, a patchwork of vegetation develops, populated by different species at various levels of maturity. By rearranging vegetation, fires support the formation of diverse ecosystems that are home to a variety of populations of insects, mammals and birds.
- When is a fire simply allowed to burn?
It generally comes down to whether the fire poses a risk to human life and property. For most of the 20th century, forest fires were seen as a destructive force that needed to be suppressed. And we were generally successful. But we’ve since come to understand that fire, like wind and water, is just another element of the ecosystem. Today’s forest fire strategies range from putting out a fire to actually setting fires on purpose (these are known as prescribed burns and are used to eliminate potential fuel sources).
Learn more about how Ontario air crews set prescribed fires.
Agencies responsible for fire suppression in an area have a number of tools available to them to assess the risk to humans and property. As NRCan explains, high-priority areas for protection include residential areas, high-value commercial forests and recreational sites. Low-priority sites are generally wilderness parks and remote forests of limited economic value—although protection of rare habitat, culturally significant areas and similar values will influence suppression decisions.
Although instances of their use have dropped significantly over the years, herbicides remain an important tool for regenerating harvested timberlands. Here’s why.
After the trees are harvested and an area is prepared for reforestation, the nutrient-rich soil and ample sunlight provide ideal conditions not only for timber regeneration, but for the growth of many other plant species. Herbicides help keep certain “pioneer” species like Canada blue-joint grass, raspberry, and trembling aspen from overtaking newly-planted tree seedlings like spruce and pine species.
Areas are typically only sprayed once, and most often that is during the first five years postharvest, either prior to or after planting seedlings.
Ensuring the health and safety of employees and neighbors is critical for Resolute and others conducting regeneration activities. Environmental considerations are also at the forefront of our approach to the sustainable and responsible management of the forests under our care. The spray program is one of the tools that we use to ensure the success of our regeneration initiatives and is conducted in compliance with government approved forest management plans. Spraying is only conducted where necessary, and only approved herbicides are applied by experienced and qualified experts.
Natural regeneration versus herbicide use
Since all of the areas that are harvested in Canada must be promptly regenerated, managing pioneer species is a recurring challenge. And there are different methods of dealing with it. Some of these spaces are naturally regenerated and some re-grow with the help of herbicides. In Ontario in 2013, for example, 46% of the harvested areas regenerated without the use of herbicides.
- If some areas regenerate without it, isn’t that proof it’s unnecessary?
The objective is to regenerate to a specific standard. Different areas see varying amounts of success depending on the method of control used. And many different methods have been tried, including laying down mulch mats, bringing in grazing livestock and even developing an indigenous fungus as a microbial biocontrol agent.But the fact is, nothing is as effective as herbicides.
And if herbicides are not used, some areas see reduced crop growth and even outright crop failure. Just like a vegetable garden in your yard, if a competing species is left unchecked, it can overwhelm the seed crop. This happened in Nova Scotia forests where herbicide use was banned. A survey published in 2007 based on 101 plantations surveyed in the summer of 2005 found that most (87%) of their conifer plantations in the area failed outright and nearly all (97%) failed to meet the generally accepted regeneration standards 6-8 years after harvest.
As a simplifying generalization, there are no alternatives that are as cost-effective, efficient or reliable as modern chemical herbicides in many forest regeneration scenarios. In fact, when the environmental impacts and risks of various site preparation techniques are weighed, herbicides can be far less dangerous than site preparation with large machinery, fires and manual brush clearing.
- Why must herbicides be applied aerially? Wouldn’t it be better to have crews apply it at ground level?
The areas scheduled for herbicide application average around 200 ha per day and are typically very remote. Aerial application of these products is not only economical, it is better than sending crews in, which can be disruptive to an area that is regenerating. As for accuracy, technologically advanced systems are used to minimize risks of drift outside of the target areas. And legislative requirements and guidance systems ensure that water-bodies next to aerially treated sites are protected by standing timber buffers.
In Ontario, Resolute only conducts aerial applications. We rely exclusively on helicopters, which increases the control over spray areas as compared to a fixed wing plane and provides precision when working with smaller areas.
- What is the most common herbicide used? What are its effects?
There are a few different types, but the most common active ingredient is glyphosate. Herbicides with glyphosate are some of the most thoroughly tested in the world. Their history of safe use is supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health, crop residue and environmental databases ever compiled on a herbicide product.
Glyphosate is particularly effective at controlling competing vegetation in plantations of conifer trees, the dominant commercial tree species harvested throughout the boreal in Canada.
It also has a relatively favorable environmental behavior profile, which means that it doesn’t linger in soils, vegetation or water, it doesn’t accumulate in animals, and it has a very low potential to leach into ground water. It also has a relatively low innate toxicity to humans and wildlife.
- But is it really safe?
Based on the extensive body of scientific literature and studies, as well as information we have received from Health Canada, we believe that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe. They have an excellent fifty-plus year safety record, and their use has been approved by Health Canada.
In a recent re-evaluation of the use of glyphosate-based herbicides, Health Canada concluded that “products containing glyphosate do not present unacceptable risks to human health or the environment when used according to the proposed label directions.”
Over 800 studies have demonstrated that glyphosate does not cause cancer, birth defects, DNA damage, nervous system effects, immune system effects, endocrine disruption or reproductive problems. In addition, numerous field studies on this topic have been undertaken in Canadian forest ecosystems. What they found is perhaps best understood in terms of what glyphosate does NOT do:
- It does NOT kill all other plants to create a single-species forest plantation.
- It does NOT poison birds, fish, aquatic invertebrates, small mammals, large mammals or amphibians.
- And it does NOT cause a reduction in soil microbial populations or significantly impair their function.  In fact, some studies even recommend the use of this treatment to create foraging conditions that support woodland caribou over moose.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) rated glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” the same category (2A) they use to classify sunshine, aloe vera, cell phones, coffee and being a barber.
Health Canada addressed this announcement in their re-evaluation decision published on April 13, 2015:
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently assigned a hazard classification for glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. It is important to note that a hazard classification is not a health risk assessment. The level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, was not taken into account by WHO (IARC). Pesticides are registered for use in Canada only if the level of exposure to Canadians does not cause any harmful effects, including cancer.
- Can you eat blueberries that have been sprayed with glyphosate?
In the consultation documents from Health Canada, it was found that products containing glyphosate acid are unlikely to affect your health when used according to label directions and that dietary risks from food and water are not of concern.
The recommendation to avoid eating berries in posted areas after spraying with a glyphosate-based herbicide does not necessarily reflect a high level of risk, but rather is invoked as a simple extra precaution with no substantial down-side, according to Natural Resources Canada. In following years, berries can be picked and eaten. Even without washing the fruit, the presence of the substance naturally diminishes at an exponential rate to approximately 50% of the initial value after 13 days and to 4% of the initial value after 61 days.  One study found that, a year after treatment with glyphosate, regrowth was normal and there was no effect on blueberry yield the season following treatment. , 
A recent survey of blueberry farmers in Maine showed that 76% of the growers surveyed use herbicides, such as glyphosate for weed management. In fact, a significant portion of growers who self-identified as “no-spray” or organic used the herbicides glyphosate and sethoxydim, (30% and 15%, respectively) showing that some farmers may not consider herbicides as “pesticides,” as they are often less toxic to vertebrate wildlife and human beings than insecticides and fungicides.
Resolute continues to monitor the research. We believe, however, that our use of herbicides as part of our sustainable forest management strategy is appropriate and evidence-based. It is also important to remember that Ontario’s forest management regimes and regulations are among the most stringent in the world and that Resolute supports and complies with them.
For more information:
 Nicholson, J. 2007. Survey of plantations established between 1998-2000 (6-8 years of age) on eastern Crown land without herbicides. Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Forest Management Planning, Forest Research Report 83, 27 p. (http://novascotia.ca/natr/library/forestry/reports/REPORT83.PDF)
 Giesy, John P., Stuart Dobson, and Keith R. Solomon. “Ecotoxicological Risk Assessment for Roundup® Herbicide.” Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology (2000): 35-120.
 Mihajlovich, Milo, and Peter Blake. “An evaluation of the potential of glyphosate herbicide for woodland caribou habitat management.” Alces 40 (2004): 7-11.
 http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/pubwarehouse/pdfs/32344.pdf Page 4
 Roy, D. N., et al. “Uptake and persistence of the herbicide glyphosate (Vision®) in fruit of wild blueberry and red raspberry.” Canadian Journal of Forest Research 19.7 (1989): 842-847.
 Hodges, Laurie; Talbert, Ronald E.; and Moore, J. N., “Effects of Glyphosate on Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum L.)” (1979). Agronomy & Horticulture — Faculty Publications. Paper 401. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/agronomyfacpub/401
 Hanson, E. J. “Response of highbush blueberries to postemergent herbicides.” IX International Vaccinium Symposium 810. 2008.
 Farmer Survey: Rose, A., F.A. Drummond, D.E. Yarborough, and E. Asare. 2013. Maine wild blueberry growers: A 2010 economic and sociological analysis of a traditional Downeast crop in transition. Maine Agricultural & Forest Experiment Station Miscellaneous Report 445
 Herbicides are less toxic: D’Appollonio, J., D. Yarborough, and F. Drummond. 2010 Maine wild blueberry pesticides chart. University of Maine Cooperative Extension. http://www.extension.umaine. edu/blueberries/files/2010/06/2010PesticideChart3-2010forWeb.pdf
Addressing the conservation of woodland caribou in Canada: A work in progress
Woodland caribou is an emblematic species of the boreal forest. It is such a national symbol in Canada that it is featured on the 25 cents piece and has been for decades. Due to the observed decline of populations of woodland caribou over several years of monitoring in several regions in Canada, the species was added to the Canadian government’s list of threatened species in 2002 . Since that time, the country’s provinces, First Nations, communities and the forest products industry have collaborated to take action for the long-term recovery and survival of this noble creature.
Three quarters of the caribou’s territory has already been safeguarded
- In Quebec, 76 percent of the caribou’s range is off limits to harvesting
- In Ontario, 77 percent of the caribou’s range is off limits to harvesting
Caribou, Predators and Habitat Change
Caribou protect themselves from predators, such as wolves, coyotes and bears, by spreading out over large areas of land. While you might find two to three moose per square kilometer (250 acres) in the boreal, you’ll generally find just one to two caribou per tract of 100 square kilometers (25,000 acres).
This strategy of spreading the population over vast regions makes it much less likely that a caribou will encounter a predator, which allows the species to grow and propagate without having to constantly be on the lookout to avoid or escape being hunted. In many cases, caribou fall victim to wolves, coyotes and bears who are actually hunting for bigger game, like moose. Woodland caribou, unlike their tundra dwelling relatives, don’t assemble in large herds that make it easy for wolves to hunt. In addition, because of their smaller size, compared to moose, they don’t offer as much of a meal when they do happen to be caught.
When tracts of forest are harvested, low vegetation, herbs and new trees quickly colonize the fertile and newly open area. This type of ground cover provides a rich and abundant source of forage, which attracts several herbivores species, such as moose. As a consequence of the influx of moose, wolves, coyotes and bears also find their way to the area in order to hunt. As the number of predators increases, the likelihood of one of them running into a caribou also goes up, which eventually leads to reduced caribou populations.
Resolute protects land to increase caribou habitat
In order to ensure that caribou habitat remains safe and abundant well into the future, Resolute is promoting forest management practices that target large tracts of land while leaving sufficient forested areas to meet the caribou’s habitat requirements. The areas identified for caribou conservation must be large enough to allow caribou to rely on their dispersion strategy to reduce encounters with predators. In addition to this approach, we have also supported several initiatives to set aside additional territory, some of which are currently under discussion as part of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement (CBFA).
Up to now, Resolute has made the following contributions in land toward the conservation of woodland caribou habitat:
- In Northeastern Ontario, the Company, along with CBFA partners, supports a proposal for an additional caribou conservation area covering almost 8,348 square kilometres on the Abitibi River Forest (3,223 square miles).
- In Northwestern Ontario, predecessor companies of Resolute Forest Products contributed some of their tenure lands for the creation of Wabakimi Provincial Park, which covers an area of 8,920 square kilometers, and is one of the largest parks in the province.
- In Quebec, Resolute was among the first companies to propose and implement an action plan for caribou. The Company also contributed to the government process to identify protected areas suitable for caribou protection.
Safeguarding caribou with sound management
With over 75% of the caribou range located north of the managed forest, we rely on numerous strategies, best practices and guidelines developed specifically for caribou conservation to provide suitable habitat for woodland caribou within the 25% of the range that falls in the managed forest. Ontario’s Caribou Conservation Plan is one example of a government guideline supporting caribou sustainability. These strategies, which are built into our forest management plans, focus on providing habitat for caribou across the landscape on a long-term basis, and minimizing disturbances to caribou populations by using the following guidelines:
- The development of road management strategies in each forest management plan identifies the location of roads, building techniques and closing procedures with caribou conservation in mind.
- Areas that are important to caribou, such as caribou calving lakes, are prioritized for protection.
- Conifer regeneration, which will result in suitable caribou habitat in the future, is prioritized in accordance with habitat protection decisions.
- Harvest operations across the landscape are scheduled over time, in order to minimize overall disturbance levels for caribou populations.
The 150-Year Plan
Perhaps the most widespread approach to harvesting, is known as a “dynamic caribou habitat scheduling,” where areas in which an optimal harvesting sequence can be carried out over a span of 100 to 150 years are identified, so that suitable caribou habitat is constantly maintained in a caribou population range. By applying this technique, large areas of suitable habitat are continuously maintained for caribou across the landscape. These caribou “deferrals” move over in the region where and when previously harvested areas have acquired the desirable caribou habitat attributes. It is only when the caribou have other areas in which to safely move, that those previously deferred areas can be harvested. This approach concentrates harvest operations in defined areas, in order to minimize disturbance levels at any given time for caribou populations across the broader range of the species.
Resolute has clearly expressed its commitment to sustaining woodland caribou populations with a combination of sustainable forest management practices, conservation of caribou habitat and the application of dynamic habitat scheduling in harvested areas to minimize disturbance and maintain sufficient caribou habitat across the landscape. Our company will continue to prioritize the conservation of this noble creature and national symbol well into the future, while also seeking additional partners and innovative approaches to further benefit woodland caribou populations across Canada.
The environmental impacts of making paper from ‘tree-free’ fiber sources can be similar and even higher than using wood pulp. Here’s why.
There’s a popular notion that paper made from non-forest sources like hemp, bamboo or kenaf offers a more sustainable alternative to paper made from wood pulp. In other words, if you choose tree-free paper you’re protecting the environment. But that’s an oversimplification of a fairly complex equation.
Most studies comparing the environmental impacts of paper made from wood and non-wood raw materials have found that the impacts are broadly similar, and in some cases even higher for crop based fibers, depending on what you consider. Simply put, relying on crops to produce paper and pulp is not a panacea, and avoiding the use of wood is not necessarily the best way to protect forests.
By working with a crop instead of a forest, we are replacing one raw material for another. Even the use of polypropylene or polyester to make ‘plastic’ paper must account for its raw material, i.e. petroleum, which carries important environmental costs – many of which are significantly higher than wood-derived paper.
It’s important to consider all aspects of working with a raw material – from how much water it takes to grow and make into paper, to how much energy goes into creating it, and what other useful products it can produce.
Fiber crops like bamboo, kenaf and hemp are used around the world, but the overall impact can be problematic if one is arguing that these are better than using wood fiber. This bears out even as we examine just a few factors. Here are four:
- Fiber crops need more water. Forests are cultivated over several years and are more resistant to variations in rainfall. Crops, however, can require a lot of water. Kenaf, for example, needs five inches of water a month. As for processing, a non-wood crop’s shorter fiber requires more water for processing. Since most of the water used in processing – whether for wood-fiber or non-wood fiber – is treated and returned to the environment, it’s not so much a matter of consumption as it is about water sensitivity. As such, non-wood fiber processing is not a good option in low water areas.
- Fiber crops use more energy to grow. Non-wood fiber crops are often cited as offering a better yield than their wood counterparts when comparing the energy used to process. And depending on circumstances, this can be the case. But crops require more inputs. The harvesting and cultivation of a crop is more intense than that of a forest because it happens more frequently. There is also a greater reliance on fertilizer, which is energy-intensive. In fact, one measure finds that up to 50% of the energy consumed for agricultural production is associated with the manufacture and distribution of fertilizers.
- Wood offers energy for the process and creates other products. Non-wood fibers have the advantage in mechanical pulping where they require less energy than wood fibers, but in chemical pulping, working with forest products has a number of strengths. Specifically, it has a lower reliance on fossil fuel generated electricity than non-wood fiber pulping. In fact, energy derived from wood’s liquor recovery typically produces about 50% of a North American pulp and paper mill’s energy needs. And pulping wood this way also yields other products such as tall oil and turpentine.
- Forests are a better use of land. Even a heavily managed tree plantation offers better habitat value, biodiversity, water quality protection and soil carbon storage than an agricultural crop. That’s because all of the harvesting, replanting, fertilization and even pesticide application is being done only once every several years. But in agriculture, this happens annually. Studies have shown that proximity to native forests is the biggest determinant of species richness (one measure of biodiversity represented by the number of plant and animal species in a given area), which means that managed forests have a big biodiversity advantage over agricultural areas .
- Annual crops can only be harvested once a year. A constant, year-round supply of fiber is a primary concern for paper mills, which is difficult to guarantee with non-wood fiber crops that are generally harvested just once a year. Developing storage capacity requires additional land, energy and resources, which would be significant considering that most non-wood fiber sources are high in volume and low in density when compared with wood.
Finally, there is a great irony to the use of crops in an effort to thwart deforestation. To save a tree, one might think it is best to derive paper from a crop. But tree harvesting in the U.S. is not depleting its forests. Rather, net tree growth has exceeded removal for over six consecutive decades. For the U.S., the greatest danger to forests remains land conversion , while in Canada agriculture urban development, transportation, recreation and hydroelectricity are the main deforestation drivers . In other words, if the demand for tree-free paper were to increase, forests may need to be cut down to convert timberland into farmland that will grow crops to make paper.
High carbon stock forests around the world have an important part to play in the capture, storage and release of carbon in the fight against global warming.
When people talk about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, one of the most maligned gases is carbon dioxide. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is not good, but carbon is one of the essential gases that make life on earth possible. Forests both store and release significant amounts of carbon as part of a natural cycle. And good forest management not only reduces a forest’s potential as a carbon source, it can also increase the effect of its carbon storage capacity.