Canadian Forest Service Publications

Fire in managed forests of eastern Canada: Risks and options. 2013. Girardin, M.P.; Ali, A.A.; Carcaillet, C.; Gauthier, S.; Hély, C.; Le Goff, H.; Terrier, A.; Bergeron, Y. For. Ecol. Manag. 294:238-249.

Year: 2013

Issued by: Laurentian Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 34788

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2012.07.005

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In this era of climate change, understanding past and predicting future fire activity are scientific challenges that are central to the development of sustainable forest management practices and policies. Such objectives, however, are difficult to achieve for several reasons. Uncertainties about future fire activity can be superimposed on the short time period covered by existing meteorological data and fire statistics, from which a historical range of variability can be determined. Regional fire activity is also tremendously variable over time, such that contemporary fire records cannot provide information on the full range of fire activity variability a given forest experienced and adapted to. This factor is increasingly important when it comes to determining the resilience of boreal forests to changes in climate and disturbance regimes. In this paper, we present a synthesis of past, present and future trends in seasonal fire danger and fire activity based on data gathered in eastern Canadian boreal forests over the last 20 years, and we provide a critical assessment of the ability to conduct sustainable forest management over the 21st century. The data synthesis provides compelling evidence of a synchronous pattern of decreasing fireconducive climatic conditions and activity of large fire seasons over the last 2000 years in the eastern coniferous boreal forest. Model simulations suggest that the climate will become drier in upcoming decades, driving future fire activity close to the upper bound of the pre-industrial range of variability. The effects of increasing fire incidence cumulated with forest harvesting may thus pose a risk to forest resilience in the future. This ecological knowledge should help us to define forest management strategies and practices considering future fire activity changes forecasted under climate change. Development of alternative silvicultural interventions that would emulate secondary disturbances (e.g. wind, insects) rather than fire would be necessary to maintain pre-industrial forest characteristics (e.g. composition and age class distribution), and associated forest resilience.

Plain Language Summary

Understanding the history and predicting the future of fires are the two major scientific challenges at the heart of developing sustainable forest management practices. These objectives are difficult to attain for several reasons, the main one being that fire activity across a region is extremely variable over time.

This article summarizes trends in past, present and future fire risk and in seasonal activity, based on data collected over the past 20 years in the eastern Canadian boreal forest. Several climate model simulations suggest that our climate will become drier in the coming decades. Consequently, the number of fires could increase to reach levels as high as during the pre-industrial era (around 1700). Coupled with forest harvesting, this increase in fire frequency could affect the ability of the forest to respond to these disturbances.

This knowledge could help to identify forest management strategies that factor in these anticipated changes in fire frequency in connection with climate change. For example, strategies could include treatments that mimic secondary disturbances caused by wind or insects in order to maintain primary forest characteristics (tree species, distribution of age classes, etc.).