Debunking Forestry Myths: A Closer Look at Wildfire Risk and its Impact on Communities, Biodiversity and Wildlife

A Joint Blog Post with CPAWS Northern Alberta

Canada has seen one of its largest and longest fire seasons yet, with over 18 million hectares having burned nation-wide in 2023. Many communities across the country have been severely impacted by wildfire, whether through prolonged days of poor air quality, altered summer plans, or having lived through the traumatic experience of being evacuated from their homes.  

That said, when talking about wildfire in Canada, it would be difficult to avoid talking about our forests, their health, and how they are managed. In addition to forest management, climate change is the leading factor in increasing wildfire risk and severity — as a result of which, for years, communities across the country have witnessed unusually dry conditions that have created the perfect storm for extreme wildfires. 

In Alberta, forestry is a major industry and forestry companies can play an important role in helping to reduce wildfire risk around communities. However, in many cases the industry is using our fears of wildfire to justify ecologically harmful, profit-seeking practices. Does the “Love Alberta Forests” campaign ring a bell? It’s an initiative from the Alberta Forest Products Association, a lobbying group that works to promote the industry’s interests.

Some of the claims made by the AFPA are highly misleading and are designed to garner support for practices and regulations that favour the industry’s bottom line. They tout their vision for sustainable forestry, but in practice they push for maximizing economic value, seeing our forests as a resource to extract, rather than for their inherent value as habitat for innumerable species, land for exercising Indigenous Treaty rights and cultural practices, and a nature-based climate solution.

The truth is that current forest management practices and land use heighten Alberta’s wildfire risk and severity.

As wildfire seasons continue to worsen and the number of people living, working, and recreating in areas with severe wildfire risk increases, we desperately need scientifically defensible forest management that is focused on protecting communities, biodiversity, and wildlife. To do that, we need to be able to have honest discussions about how forest management influences wildfire risk. The forestry industry has an important role to play in protecting communities from wildfire, but current practices don’t do enough to achieve this — and some even make the problem worse. Below, we address some of the most common myths created and perpetuated by the forestry industry, which are used to justify profit-first forestry practices.

MYTH: Clearcut logging should be used to reduce wildfire risk. 
FACT: Industrial scale clearcuts are not a good tool for wildfire mitigation. 

While the forestry industry frequently asserts that clearcutting old forests across the landscape will mitigate fire risk, evidence supporting this claim is lacking. In reality, many facets of current forestry practices are ineffective in reducing fire risk, and these methods may even exacerbate the risk of wildfire. 

Forest Composition

Most forestry companies in Alberta target conifer species, often referred to as evergreen trees, due to their higher profitability. Once harvesting in an area is completed, measures are taken to suppress the growth of deciduous trees, also known as broad-leaf trees, through techniques like herbicide application and mechanical treatments. The primary goal of this is to maximize conifer regrowth for future harvests.

However, research indicates that deciduous trees, such as aspen, are less prone to burning than conifers, and that fires in deciduous stands burn slower and with less intensity than conifer stands (Cumming, 2001; Hély et al., 2000). The forestry industry’s focus on maximizing dense conifer regrowth at the expense of deciduous trees elevates fire risk.  

To reduce fire spread potential, one strategy is to convert coniferous forests into deciduous or mixed wood forests near communities, supported by the Government of Alberta as a FireSmart approach (AAF, 2020. B12 FMU: Wildfire Threat Assessment).  

While forest composition changes towards a greater proportion of deciduous forests are not possible or desirable everywhere, current practices are taking us in the opposite direction – toward more flammable, single-species conifer monocrops. 

Fire Refugia

Wildfires create a mosaic of burnt, partially burnt, and unburnt forests, with unburnt refugia playing a vital role in biodiversity and regeneration (Sommers & Flannigan, 2022). Fire refugia refers to areas that remain unburnt after a wildfire, offering a safe haven for species and helping with ecosystem recovery.  These refugia can be preserved by chance weather events or variation in microclimates. Large intact peatlands in boreal forests serve as effective fire refugia while also providing essential carbon storage. However, peatlands are increasingly at risk of drying out due to changing climate conditions, making them susceptible to high-intensity, smouldering fires that are exceedingly challenging to control (Wilkinson et al., 2021). In addition, peatlands are vulnerable to drying out when forest harvest often takes place around wetlands.   

Current forestry practices reduce fire refugia by homogenizing tree species on the landscape and reducing overall biodiversity. Salvage logging, which is when recently burned areas are harvested, can either destroy or overwhelm refugia, which negates their benefit in maintaining biodiversity following a disturbance (Drever et al., 2006).

Fire refugia act as biodiversity lifeboats and as fire breaks — but clearcut forestry, salvage logging and lack of wetland protection reduce the amount of refugia on the landscape. 

Risk of Access

Forestry roads are created for accessing remote harvesting locations, but they also facilitate greater access into the forest, increasing potential for human-caused fires. The majority of wildfires result from human actions, which includes discarded cigarette butts, unattended campfires, and ATV exhausts (Alberta Wildfire’s Seasonal Statistics, 2022). Human-caused ignitions can extend the fire season since they are especially prevalent during shoulder seasons, like springtime, when vegetation is dry and highly flammable (Balch et al., 2017; Hanes et al., 2019).  

Expanding industrial road access to remote forest areas heightens the risk of human-caused fires, particularly during shoulder seasons when human activities are the primary ignition source. 

MYTH: Increasing the harvest of old growth stands will reduce wildfire risk to communities.
FACT: Targeted treatments that are specifically designed to minimize wildfire risk around communities are the most effective forest management options to reduce risk to those communities.  

To reduce wildfire risk near communities, targeted treatments (such as thinning, harvest design and forest composition) are the most effective approach. The idea that increasing old-growth forest harvest rates on a landscape level protects communities from fires is misleading. Instead, the focus should be on strategies within the wildland-urban interface (the areas where human development meets or intermingles with the natural environment). 

Ultimately, weather conditions drive fire; and, as climate change worsens fire regimes, we will continue to see more wildfires. Nevertheless, there is much more that can and should be done to minimize risk to communities, and the forestry industry can be an important part of that work. 

Thinning Treatments

Fire suppression policies and the decline of Indigenous burning practices has led to the buildup of flammable materials around communities, resulting in what experts refer to as a “fire deficit.” Studies indicate that recently burned forests have a reduced likelihood of experiencing subsequent fires (Bernier et al., 2016).  Consequently, a diminished proportion of recently burned forests can heighten the risk of wildfires for the communities situated nearby (Parisien et al., 2020).  

Practices that reduce fuel load in the vicinity of communities include thinning treatments, where selected trees are removed (but not clear cut), as well as prescribed fires to remove surface fuels. Strategic use of these treatments has been shown to reduce fire severity in some landscapes (Tubbesing et al., 2019). 

Harvest Design & Forest Composition

Strategically placing deciduous stands near communities through forest management can break up the continuity of flammable forest and help create fire breaks. This approach also reduces risks associated with prescribed burns, making it easier to use this tool to reduce fuel loading. Forest management strategies that focus on maximizing timber supply are ineffective at reducing fire risk. Strategies that manage fire risk near communities are what’s really needed (Hirsch et al., 2004). 

Business-as-usual clearcut logging, particular outside of the wildfire-urban interface, does little to reduce fire risk to communities. Targeted strategic treatments around communities as part of comprehensive fire risk reduction plans are most effective.

MYTH: Current forest management practices are sustainable because they mimic natural disturbances, like wildfires. 
FACT: Clearcut forest management fails to effectively mimic the ecosystem benefits that wildfire provides. The overarching goal of current forestry management is to maximize timber supply, while ecosystem integrity and fire risk management outcomes are secondary.

Wildfires in the boreal forest play a critical role in shaping the forest’s age structure, species composition, and landscape diversity. Humans have harnessed the benefits of fire for resource management and community protection for millennia (Hoffman et al., 2022). Wildfires can bolster biodiversity by creating habitat for both fire-adapted and shade-intolerant species, while also regulating water, pests, and further catastrophic fires (Pausas & Keeley, 2019). 

It has been argued that harvesting can mimic natural disturbances, thereby providing the ecosystem with similar benefits. However, harvesting and natural disturbances affect biodiversity in different ways which vary according to the ecosystem type, harvesting techniques, and scale of disturbance seen in forests (McRae et al., 2001). In addition, forest harvesting comes with extensive road networks, which bring their own set of problems as described above.

Post-Fire Habitat and Refugia

Wildfires and logging differ in scale and impact. Wildfires burn across the landscape unevenly, leaving behind patches of unburnt habitat, fire refugia, which are critical for maintaining biological diversity and aiding ecosystem recovery (Sommers & Flannigan, 2022). Patches left behind by wildfires contribute to a complex mosaic of forest stand types and age structures on the land (McRae et al., 2001), creating a more resilient and diverse ecosystem. Residual biomass consisting of live and dead trees that remain after a wildfire act as critical habitat for birds, insects and small mammals, all of which support ecosystem recovery (Perera & Buse, 2014).  

This contrasts with commercial logging, which typically simplifies forest structure by targeting specific stand types and seeks to standardize and minimize the amount of variability that naturally exists within an ecosystem (Drever et al., 2006). 

Successional Pathway

Succession refers to the process of change within an ecosystem over time, particularly following a disturbance that changes the pre-existing habitat. The successional pathway differs significantly when comparing the aftermath of a forest harvest with the aftermath of a wildfire.  

In a harvested forest, where trees are systematically removed, commercially valuable conifer species are replanted, and chemical or mechanical treatments are regularly employed to restrict the growth of other naturally occurring species to reduce competition. This approach leads to simplified forest composition, making the ecosystem more susceptible to threats such as wildfire, insects, and diseases (Drever et al., 2006).  

Differences in the post-harvest and post-fire landscapes significantly influence animal communities. Some species, like saproxylic insects and cavity-nesting birds depend on post-fire habitats (such as living and dead trees, snags, and woody debris) for survival (Nappi & Drapeau, 2009). Additionally, logging practices that reduce the presence of broadleaf trees and shrub cover have been shown to reduce songbird diversity and abundance (Stuart-Smith, 2002).   

Retention Harvesting

Retention harvesting seeks to maintain structural elements of the original forest by leaving behind essential components within the logged area, including living and dead trees, woody debris, and other biological legacies. While retention harvesting is an improvement from clear cutting, much more research is needed to accurately mimic the complex effects that fire has on the landscape (Sommers & Flannigan, 2022). Achieving successful ecological responses through retention harvesting necessitates much higher levels of retention than what is practiced in Alberta (typically 1-5% is left behind).  

While this technique can have positive effects for biodiversity and resiliency, to achieve sustainable forest management, a shift in mindset from the profit driven, reductionist model that is currently prevalent is required (Hirsch et al., 2001). Balancing ecological stewardship and economic development may be achievable through changes in knowledge, attitudes, and policies (Hirsch et al., 2001).  

Current forestry practices do not effectively replicate the intricate ecosystem dynamics of wildfires, but there are methods, like retention harvesting, that offer promise if properly implemented. 

MYTH: Maintaining or increasing timber harvest levels is compatible with boreal caribou recovery.
FACT: Forestry activities hinder boreal caribou recovery, especially in areas where caribou habitat is already highly disturbed and caribou herds are precariously small.  

Woodland caribou were listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2003, but caribou populations continue to decline nationwide. In Alberta, aggressive wolf culls on provincial land are the only actions keeping some populations stable (Hervieux et al., 2014), while the Federally managed herd in Jasper National Park is implementing a breeding program. Simultaneously, industrial activity on provincial land continues to expand. A significant portion of both Boreal and Southern Mountain caribou ranges overlaps with commercial forest harvesting, the vast majority of which is clearcutting.  

Since 1999 the forestry footprint has more than doubled from 2.1% to 5.3% of Alberta’s land2. Despite continued caribou population decline and confirmation of “imminent threats to its recovery” from the Federal government for some populations, industrial-scale clearcutting continues to take place in critical habitat. 

Forestry impacts caribou in several ways:  

Habitat Loss

Harvesting results in direct loss of old conifer forests and associated lichens that take decades to recover and are essential to caribou. Consequences extend beyond harvested areas (DeCesare et al., 2012), as caribou avoid logged regions, reducing the size of their ranges and, in some cases, leading to diminished migratory behaviour and survival rates (MacNearney et al., 2016; Williams et al., 2021). Loss of caribou habitat has accelerated in recent decades (Nagy‐Reis et al., 2021).

Increased Predation

Caribou reside in low productivity environments, including treed wetlands and old-growth conifer forests, which other ungulates like moose and white-tailed deer typically avoid due to limited foraging opportunities. However, clearcut forestry lures these species into caribou habitat, attracting their predators, particularly wolves, which increases predation rates on caribou. Increased predation rate as a result of human-caused habitat changes is a leading cause of caribou decline (Peters et al., 2013; Serrouya et al., 2021). Simultaneously, climate change expanding white-tailed deer range northwards, further exacerbating predation pressure on caribou (Dawe & Boutin, 2016; Latham et al., 2011).

Increased Access

Access roads constructed to carry out logging operations and other linear features provide easier access into remote caribou habitat, particularly for wolves, which move faster and further on linear features (Dickie et al., 2017), increasing predation on caribou (DeMars & Boutin, 2018). Access also increases the risk of negative human-wildlife interactions. 

The increasing number of large fires will place additional pressure on caribou habitat. In the past, caribou adapted to fire-dominated ecosystems by shifting their range over large areas in response to fire (Courtois et al., 2007). However, because of human disturbance this is increasingly difficult and further exemplifies why we must minimize human disturbance in caribou habitat, to allow space for their survival and recovery. While caribou do avoid burned areas (Konkolics et al., 2021), human-caused habitat disturbance has the biggest impact on caribou populations, at a magnitude 3 to 4 times higher than fire (Johnson et al., 2020).

There must be balance between forestry activities in caribou ranges and caribou recovery, but we are already far beyond ecological limits for caribou. The area of harvested forest in caribou range must be lowered to a scientifically justifiable level that allows for caribou recovery. 

Indigenous Knowledge & Prescribed Fire  

Historically, Indigenous peoples in North America widely used fire as a tool to manage resources (e.g., to create better moose habitat) and to protect communities – what is often referred to as Indigenous fire stewardship. This cultural burning is almost always carried out in spring, winter, or fall, to keep fires under control. Frequent low severity burning reduces fuel loads and creates mosaics of habitat that reduces negative impacts from wildfire. We can think of it as “bringing the right fire, to the right place, at the right time” (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022). Colonization led to the loss of these practices as fire suppression was widely adopted and Indigenous peoples and their knowledge of fire stewardship was marginalized, despite the fact that Indigenous fire stewardship increases biodiversity and reduces catastrophic fire risk (Hoffman et al., 2021).  

Indigenous-led fire management programs are seeing success in revitalizing Indigenous fire stewardship, in Australia (Freeman et al., 2021) and the US (Marks-Block & Tripp, 2021).  In Canada, the Prince Albert Grand Council (Saskatchewan) established a Wildfire Task Force in 2018, which is working to ensure that First Nations have input on all aspects of wildfire management (Hoffman et al., 2022). In British Columbia the Tsilhqot’in Fire Management program has worked to revitalize fire practices after devastating fires in 2017 and 2018 (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022). However, there is an urgent need to remove barriers to revive Indigenous fire stewardship at scale across the country by addressing power imbalances, devolving decision-making, increasing capacity, and supporting cultural burning (Hoffman et al., 2022). 

Indigenous communities have long recognized the importance of controlled burning as a wildfire management tool, but legal barriers and colonial legacies continue to be barriers to the revitalization of Indigenous fire stewardship (Copes-Gerbitz et al., 2021; Hoffman et al., 2022). Indigenous communities are also uniquely vulnerable to wildfire because communities are often located in remote forested regions and lack support from provincial and federal governments to mitigate their fire risk. Increasing support for Indigenous fire stewardship and prioritizing Indigenous leadership in fire management is critical to minimizing wildfire risk to all communities (Hoffman et al., 2022). 

Prevention vs. Suppression 

Wildfire prevention is massively underfunded – for example, the Cariboo region of BC spent $3,949,301 on wildfire prevention activities such as fuel treatments in 2017 and 2018 combined, whereas they spent $229,503,189 on wildfire suppression (Nikolakis & Roberts, 2022).  Funding for wildfire prevention activities is a cost-effective method to reduce the costs of wildfire response. Supporting Indigenous Fire Stewardship should be front and centre.


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The full technical report on which this blog post is based is available upon request. Please email to request a copy.