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Excerpt: The Language of Fire


By Niki Wilson

Wildfires play an important role in the landscape. But when they burn out of control, professionals dive in to manage them. Fire expert Gregg Walker explains what is really going on amidst the flames.


2017 marked one of the most intense wildfire years on record in western North America, with thousands of square kilometres burned and lives lost. Homes vanished in flames, while smoke poured across the western provinces and states. Here in the Canadian Rockies, the Kenow fire in Waterton Lakes National Park scorched over 381 square kilometres, at its peak spreading so quickly that some animals – species normally able to escape wildfire – succumbed to fire and smoke inhalation. The Verdant Creek wildfire in Kootenay National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park burned over 141 square kilometres, casting a haze over surrounding communities like Banff and Canmore. Further north, Jasper also sat in smoke, teetering on a municipally imposed evacuation alert for weeks.

During a wildfire, phrases like “out of control” and “crown fire” become part of the daily newscast, but for some of us, it is not always clear what they mean. Yet these terms have specific meanings to those who fight fires. A clearer definition might help us better understand fire risk and what’s happening on the ground as firefighters manage the blaze. Here, Parks Canada national fire management officer and forest ecologist Gregg Walker explains some common fire language and delves into factors that affect fire behaviour.

[N.W.] What is the historic, ecological role of fire on the landscape in the mountain parks?

[G.W.} In the Rocky Mountains, wildfire has always been an important part of the ecosystem. We know that through the fire history study. When you go back hundreds of thousands of years in the historic record, you see these repeat fires. The wildlife and plants have adapted to it; plants sprout quickly afterward, or they have some mechanism to rejuvenate after fire. Fire actually sustains the biodiversity of these forests. A forest in the Rocky Mountains without fire is usually not healthy, and not in its natural state. […]

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Niki Wilson is a science writer based in Jasper. She writes for publications like BBCEarthCanadian GeographicMotherboard, and Natural History Magazine.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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