A forest is being reborn in Bocabec

(Robert Fisher photo) Red maple and birch suckers grow from roots the Stein Lake fire didn’t damage, even as stumps are charred and lifeless.

BOCABEC – Late last week, the province officially declared the Stein Lake wildfire to be out.

The announcement came nearly a month to the day the fire ignited.

Nature didn’t wait for an official announcement and began regenerating the forest almost immediately. A walk through some of the northern fire area near Bocabec Ridge Road a week before the government announcement showed significant regeneration already occurring.

New ferns growing out of the charred remains of old plants, grass, suckers of maple and birch trees growing from root systems under the ground, and signs of insect life all evidenced the rapid regeneration of the forest that was taking place.

Anthony Taylor, associate professor in forest management at University of New Brunswick, discussed the regeneration process, how fire can be beneficial and how the forest may change as it regrows.

“In an old forest, you’ll have a buildup of organic layers and exposed mineral soil, which can then restart new regeneration and rejuvenate the forest to some extent,” said Taylor. Mineral soil is the base soil material of sand, silt, clay and other inorganic materials that organic life grows in.

Taylor said forest management (thinning out forests and removing dead or fallen trees after storm events) can help manage fire and reduce the severity of a fire.

“Whether it will prevent them altogether, I wouldn’t say that, but it may help reduce the chances of some of those big fires flaring up.”

When a significant portion of a growth area is destroyed, it has the potential to change the composition of the forest. In the case of the Stein Lake fire, some areas of the fire were less intense surface fires. Taylor said there was likely some conifer seed accumulation on the floor that would have been damaged and that will “change the direction of succession to some degree.”

“You don’t have that seedling bank anymore,” he said, adding that opens up opportunities for other tree types to move in and for new herbaceous vegetation to take hold.

In other areas where the fire was more intense and got into the tops of the tree cover, called a crown fire, the seed-producing parts of those trees are lost. Taylor explained that regeneration would rely on seed being blown in from other areas, which could change forest composition significantly.

In an area that had burned more intensely, early signs of herbaceous plant life was emerging. Raspberries, some several centimetres high, were growing in the area. Taylor said what would likely come next is what “will be called early succession forest, a forest dominated by birch, poplar and trembling aspen type species.” Those species, he said, are easily able to regenerate from root sprouts and nearby unburned areas are made up of those species, meaning seeds will easily blow into the area and begin sprouting.

Taylor said he can’t attribute any fire solely to climate change, but trends are emerging over time.

“One of the most important factors driving wildfire is weather itself, and this spring has been a historically dry spring,” he said.

According to the federal Canadian Drought Monitor website, April and May were the driest on record in southwest New Brunswick dating back to 2003.

Taylor said looking forward, the region’s climate is expected to warm significantly.

“The climate system has such momentum that almost no matter what we do in terms of our climate change mitigation efforts, we’re likely to see one to two degrees (Celsius) of warming in this region.” Those conditions will mean a greater number of days where weather is more conducive to wildfire.

In simple terms, climate is the long-term average of weather over a period of, typically, 30 years.

“Climate within this region is expected to warm but levels of precipitation in this area are not expected to really change a whole lot,” said Taylor.

Increased warming with no increase in moisture means more evaporation and drier conditions, which contributes to fire risk.

With that knowledge, Taylor said one of the most important things people need to consider when using the forest is to be fire smart.

“Over 95 per cent of the fires that occur in this region are from human ignition,” he said.

As a researcher, Taylor said the fires in Bocabec and Nova Scotia present an interesting research opportunity. Historically, fires haven’t been a regular part of life in the Maritimes, largely due, he said, to good fire suppression practices.

“When it does occur, it does create an opportunity, a natural experiment to study, how does fire affect forest regeneration and various soil processes.”

While the fires have been a negative for many reasons, there are, he said, some opportunities to learn. That kind of work has been done on the West Coast because that region has been more prone to fire. He anticipates the regeneration processes would be different on the East Coast because of the differing tree species. He said the diversity of East Coast forests, with more hardwood species, has helped make the region more resilient and less fire prone.