Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Dried-out bogs contribute to wildfires: researcher

By The Canadian Press   

Headlines News

June 28, 2016 - New research from an Ontario professor indicates that bogs dried for logging or other purposes can experience catastrophic deep burns that can last for months and contribute to the spread of wildfires in both Canada and northern Europe.

But Mike Waddington of McMaster University says his research, published Monday in Nature Scientific Reports, also shows peat bogs – wetlands with dead plant material and mosses – can be restored through ''re-wetting,'' which can help mitigate the spread of fires because they act as natural barriers.

Waddington has studied the severity and recovery of wildfires in the Slave Lake, Alta., area in 2011, and one in southern Ontario that showed dried bogs were permanently damaged and fundamentally altered.

He says humans have long mined these bogs for peat, a resource that can be used as fuel and for horticultural purposes.

The bogs have also been dried out for logging, such as many in Alberta where ditches are dug to divert water, because a dry bog leads to significantly larger black spruce trees.

Waddington says climate change will lead to further drying of these bogs, thereby increasing the threat of bigger, longer-lasting and more severe wildfires.

His research has shown the problems can be reversed through several methods, from blocking the ditches to return water to the area to planting moss to spur regrowth to strategically chopping down the large spruce trees.

Canada has dried bogs in Alberta, Quebec and New Brunswick, Waddington said, that could benefit from restoration.

One of these dried bogs appeared to play a role in the recent fires in Fort McMurray, he said, which is something he hopes to study once a sense of normalcy returns to the area.

That massive wildfire forced the evacuation of the community and destroyed large swaths of neighbourhoods in early May.

''There is a drained peat land at Highway 63 in Fort McMurray that burned in the fire last month and that was a particularly difficult portion of that fire to put out,'' Waddington said.

''The problem is these fires can smoulder for days to weeks to months and can even hold over the winter and re-ignite because it burns down and down and down into the soil, so it's a very difficult fire to put out.''

That bog was drained to promote tree growth for logging purposes, Waddington said. But, he said, the massive growth of black spruce in turn increases the risk of fire and also leads to ''spotting,'' where embers launch up to two kilometres into the air and return to earth as small firebombs. That, he said, occurred in the Slave Lake fire and appeared to occur in Fort McMurray.

He said his future research will examine this issue further and also hopes his research spurs discussion.

''The question is: how do we manage peat and peat fires in and around communities where people are living?'' Waddington said.

''I think this paper is starting to get this discussion going.''

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