An NFB film on forest fire in which I played a peripheral role as a researcher in the 1980s, perfectly illustrates the point I made in yesterday’s Chronicle: our knowledge about nature and how it works is extremely fragile. I discovered not only that what I knew about this subject was minimal, but so also was the knowledge of the nation’s experts. (This should have been no surprise to me: I had already discovered that in the vast armoury of information at the command of the Canadian government, only one guy was assigned to keep watch over the quality of Canada’s soil, the very soil on which the nation depends for everything. And this at a time when our top-soil was disappearing at a record pace.)
The film in question, Ashes to Forest, directed by Tony Ianzelo, was one made for the National Parks service to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Banff National Park in 1884. It showed something that took almost all its audience by surprise, and totally freaked out some of them. The opening shot was the usual thing, showing a plane flying over a major forest fire dropping water, in an effort to put the fire out. But the end shot of the film was what counted: it showed a helicopter flying over Banff National Park, dropping fire in the hope of creating a blaze among the tinder-dry undergrowth that had become consolidated as a result of our many years of determination to stamp out every fire that occurred. How could this be? An effort to set fire to our glorious National Park? What were these guys hoping to discover? “We really don’t know,” they replied when I asked the question. “We are just experimenting.”
Further questioning brought from them the reluctant admission that all these years, decades, of relentlessly putting out forest fires, appeared to have created a veritably unliveable situation across the length and breadth of the land. Fire remission had become almost a religion; its symbol, accepted everywhere without question, had been the Smokey the Bear fire-prevention campaign, invented somewhere in the United States years before. The problem was this: forest fire was a natural occurrence that had always existed, long before Europeans entered North America and began to build towns and cities that had to be defended against fire, come what may. And our massive interference in the natural system had created a totally unnatural situation which the experts were only slowly beginning to understand.
To judge the health of a forest, I was told, one had to think big, not just about this patch of forest close to a town, but other adjoining patches stretching for miles. Of course, there were few areas in the country left where forests had been allowed to develop naturally, according to the original fashion. But where they existed, they were perfectly designed --- by Nature --- to resist all attacks by whatever pests might be willing to destroy them. Imagine a large slice of forested country that had been subject to multiple forest fires over the centuries, fires that were usually started by electrical activity descending during thunderstorms as lightning strikes. Forests were never destroyed by such fires: they would quickly begin to regrow. So in this imaginary landscape, the trees, regrown after fires at different places and at different times, would be of varying age, some of them rather elderly, some of them twenty or thirty years of age in full process of regrowth, and others just sprigs shooting up out of the ground immediately after a recent fire. This, I was told, would be the model of a healthy forest, ideally suited to resist its enemies. Bugs such as, for instance, the pine bark beetle, are always in the forests, but can only become infestations in areas where the trees have lost their energy and are therefore vulnerable to attack. Younger trees can resist, and do. But if huge areas of our forests have been denied fires over decades by assiduous fire-fighters, then presumably there would be vast areas of trees of one age that as they aged would become vulnerable to attacks that they do not have the energy to resist. In fact, this has happened, as anyone who remembers the shots of acre after acre of dead and dying trees in the foothills of the Rockies a few years ago will remember, a disaster caused, basically, by the suppression of forest fire.
In areas of maximum concern, such as the Banff National Park, the undergrowth has become so tinder-dry that the risk of an immense fire has been immeasurably increased by our years of fire-fighting: a conflagration, one might think, is inevitable, however long delayed it might be.
Of course, I have only a sketchy knowledge of all this stuff, but I do know that this is just one of many areas of interest in which the nation appears to be heading full steam in a direction the results of which are only slowly becoming evident. Loss of top soils is another; clear-cut forests are another; mono-agriculture with its polluting factory farming is another; the escape of fertilizers and pesticides into our water streams is another…..I could go on and on in this vein…Suffice it to say that global warning has not occurred by accident, but rather by design, as represented by our collective behaviour.
In the late 1950s I was asked to write a series on pollution, and then I discovered to my surprise that every town and village along the Ottawa river was putting its sewage raw into the river from which each of these towns and cities was drawing its life’s blood. How could that be in an educated country? I was totally appalled that Montreal, a huge city, was disposing of its waste in this way and that a few years later when we had started to build some sort of treatment, we invested only in the mos rudimentary, so-called primary treatment. I have no idea what the situation is now, but I certainly hope we have learned something in these last sixty years.