Canadian Forest Service Publications

Anthropogenic influence on wildfire activity in Alberta, Canada. 2016. Robinne, F.-N.; Parisien, M.-A.; Flannigan, M. International Journal of Wildland Fire 25(11):1131-1143.

Year: 2016

Available from: Northern Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 37314

Language: English

CFS Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1071/WF16058

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The boreal forest of Alberta, Canada, is under pressure from a rapid expansion of the wildland–human interface driven by natural resources exploitation. The specific impact of these changes on area burned remains poorly understood. We addressed this issue by modelling area burned for the 1980–2010 period using variables accounting for various anthropogenic effects. We hypothesise that an ecological frontier exists in the areas of intermediate to low human influence in northern Alberta, which implies a new influx of human-caused ignitions coinciding with continuous flammable vegetation, hence promoting area burned. Using a statistical control approach, we assessed the importance of each anthropogenic variable by adding them to a biophysical regression model. Our results show that there is a diversity of responses of area burned to the different anthropogenic factors considered. Distance to the transportation network, human footprint and density of the energy network significantly improved the model predictions. The area burned in the ecological frontier showed clusters of higher predictions by anthropogenic models, which supports our hypothesis of an ecological frontier and suggests that human and natural ignitions have an additive, albeit temporary, effect on landscape fire susceptibility.

Plain Language Summary

The boreal forest of Alberta, Canada, is under pressure from rapid expansion of natural resources exploitation (e.g., oil and gas, forestry, mining). Consequently, the equilibrium reached between wildfires and ecosystems over millennia appears to be threatened. The specific ways in which humans are altering wildfire activity in this area are still subject to debate. We addressed this issue by examining how climate and a range of human activities affected wildfire activity in Alberta between 1981 and 2010. Our results showed that climate is the main driver of fire activity in the boreal forest in Alberta and that human pressure generally causes a decrease in wildfire activity. However, we found that wildfire activity increased at the periphery of the wildland–human interface. Human land use, the density of transportation features (roads and railways), and the connectivity of the road network significantly improved our ability in this study to predict wildfire occurrence. Our results support the notion that expansion of human activities tends to decrease natural fire activity in the boreal forest, but fire activity intensifies at the “frontier” of human expansion where the forest cover is still highly continuous (or relatively unfragmented). Our findings highlight the need to incorporate the effects of human activity into our wildfire predictions.

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