Ribbons of smoke curl up out of the forests framing the Trans Canada Highway as drivers enter and exit Banff’s townsite in the picturesque Rocky Mountains of western Alberta.
There, Parks Canada crews have been hard at work trying to remove the fuel on the forest floor and canopy in Banff National Park.
“What that involves is pruning and thinning the forest so we can reduce the amount of fuel load in terms of wildfire risk reduction,” said David Tavernini, Fire and Vegetation Specialist with Parks Canada.
“This helps us manage wildfires safely and be able to protect the communities, people and infrastructure,” he added.
This season, about 34 hectares of forest will be thinned — the equivalent of about 48 Canadian-sized football fields.
The forests in Banff National Park are not only old and beyond what is considered their natural burning cycle, but mountain pine beetle is also wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.
“There’s been a long standing question of do these mountain pine beetle outbreaks actually lead to higher incidents of fires, but also a higher severity of fires — and some preliminary findings show yes that they do,” said Chris Bone, an associate professor at University of Victoria who is studying the impacts of mountain pine beetle on wildfire risk.
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Bone said recent findings in Alberta estimate 2.4-million hectares of forest across the province have been impacted.
In December the Alberta government announced a 94 per cent decline in mountain pine beetle populations in Jasper National Park since 2019, thanks to in part mitigation work and longer periods of frigid weather.
Read more: Mountain pine beetle population decimated in Jasper National Park after consecutive deep freezes
While positive, Bone said it’s no way the end of the problem. The province said the threat of beetle resurgence still remains in some areas, including the Bow Valley, Kananaskis, and Crowsnest Pass.
“These beetles are endemic, they exist in the forest and all it takes is warming temperatures to occur again and there have to be live trees to attack,” Bone warned.
“You have those two things and you have conditions for beetle populations to go through the roof.”
For the regions still at risk, Alberta’s mountain pine beetle management plan is moving into its next phase.
It means partnering with local and Indigenous contractors to control beetle activities with targeted, single-tree cutting and burning, as well as whole-tree chipping and harvesting entire areas of affected pine trees as needed.
Parks Canada said the work it is doing now will not only help mitigate wildfire risk but also strengthen the forests against mountain pine beetle.
Two prescribed burns are also planned for later in 2023.
— With files from Scott Hayes, Jasper Fitzhugh