By Steve Hubrecht
An Invermere resident, who is the new head of fire management in Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park and the Lake Louise part of Banff National Park, recently travelled to Idaho to share ideas on dealing with forest fires.
Jed Cochrane, who has been the National Parks Fire and Plant Specialist for the Kootenay, Yoho and Lake Louise for a few months, was accompanied by Rick Kubian, also from Invermere, who held the role before Mr. Cochrane. Both men were invited by the U.S. National Parks Service to Stanley, Idaho to give a presentation on Kootenay-Yoho-Lake Louise’s innovative fire program that protects people and property, but also sometimes allows fires to burn and occasionally even prescribes them.
“We gave a four-hour presentation on what we do for fire management in our forests,” said Mr. Cochrane. “It seemed to really ring true to the people in Stanley.”
Stanley is just outside Sawtooth National Forest, which, because it is full of Lodgepole pines, is somewhat similar to the forests in Kootenay National Park. According to Mr. Cochrane, the Stanley area has seen many large fires in the last 10 years, some of them creating enough smoke to temporarily shut down Stanley’s tourism industry, so people were keen to learn how to proactively manage fires.
Mr. Cochrane and his team use a three-pronged approach to managing fires — outright fire suppression, fuels management (which includes thinning trees, clearing up leaf litter and needles, and otherwise reducing matter that makes fires burn better) and prescribed burns.
Deciding which approach to take depends on a number of factors, such as time of year, exact location, weather, the number of other fires nearby, and the number of visitors in the park.
Prescribed burns are useful since the burnt land left behind makes a natural barrier against future fires and is also ecologically important, said Mr. Cochrane, adding that Kootenay National Park has had several managed fires in recent years, including the Mitchell Ridge prescribed fire in 2008 and last summer’s Octopus Mountain fire — which was possibly the first time Parks Canada’s fire management crews have ever allowed a fire to run its natural course.
“We’re allowing a natural process to occur as it has in the past,” he said. “We’re excited about that and the people down in Stanley were excited about that too. We gave them some ideas they could move forward with.”
Fire disturbance in an ecosystem helps regenerate forests, cycles nutrients, and impacts vegetation, trees and what grows on the forest floor. By so doing, it helps sustain the habitat used by a variety of wildlife.
“It’s important even for bears, for instance, to have fire; otherwise you wouldn’t have open areas where berries grow and then bears will go elsewhere,” said Mr. Cochrane. “Fire has been playing that role basically forever.”
Fire also helps guard against the spread of mountain pine beetles, since burns leave a patchwork of differently aged trees in a forest, he said. Mountain pine beetles will only eat trees of a certain age.
“An evenly-aged carpet of trees plays right into the mountain pine beetle because it just keeps cruising through the whole forest without hitting any of the younger stuff that it doesn’t like,” Mr. Cochrane said.
He lived in the upper Columbia Valley for 10 years before doing a Master’s degree that focused on fire ecology in montane forests in the Rocky Mountain Trench. Following his degree, Mr. Cochrane worked for Parks Canada out of Calgary for five years before he and his family returned to Invermere when he took over the fire program in Kootenay-Yoho-Lake Louise.