Grasslands National Park quickly rebounds following 2013 fire

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Park Interpreter Brenda Peterson from Grasslands National Park made an hour long presentation at last week's 49 by 110 Spring Conference hosted by Tourism Swift Current to share the transformation at the park caused by the April 27, 2013 fire.

One year after the devastating 12,000 acre fire at Grasslands National Park, Canada's largest national park preserving original mixed-grass prairie is showing amazing resiliency.

On April 27 of last year, a fire began roaring through Grasslands and burning over 16 kilometres in less than four hours fuelled by high winds. By the next day, 20 sections of land were burned before the fire was brought under control. However, as that represents only five per cent of the entire Park area, park personnel are not looking at the fire as a completely negative occurrence.

Brenda Peterson, a park interpreter from the Grasslands National Park made an hour long presentation at last week's 49 by 110 Spring Conference hosted by Tourism Swift Current to share the transformation at the park caused by the fire. Although it will take a decade to fully recover from the blaze, above normal rains in the weeks after the fire allowed vegetation to quickly rebound and it has allowed for an extensive study of how nature heals after an intense fire.

"This is an opportunity. We can see the changes in the land after. What is renewal about? How long does it take? There's lots of things to look at. So it's a researchers dream," Peterson said of the opportunity brought on by the extensive blaze. "It takes 10 years after a fire to come back to what it was," she added. "Some species will come back, some will not."

"Fire is merely a tool, whether planned or by surprise, it's natural. It's something we live with. Renewal by fire is neither all good or all bad. It's living with it and learning from it that makes us richer."

She pointed out that the fire has an effect on the eco systems' integrity and bio diversity. By fire exposing the soil, dormant seeds from certain plants and flowers began to germinate. Rocky Mountain Juniper will not come back following a fire, while areas of sagebrush could returning depending on the intensity of the blaze. Song Birds were also impacted, as notably Chestnut-collared Longspur population numbers have thrived after the fire, while the Sprague's Pipit has gone from the top populated bird to struggling to return to the area.

Researchers have also been able to discover some previously undiscovered significant archaeological details of the history of the grasslands. They have been able to map tee pee rings and other artifacts while mapping the routes bison travelled through the grasslands.

"From the 2013 fire they found cairns that had never been identified," she said, noting these finds were four to eight meters apart and had previously been buried by the passing of time.

While most tourism destinations would cringe at the thought of a fire, both controlled burns and wildfires are responsible for how the region looks today.

"Prescribed burns manage the prairie. They manage the grass in two ways. Number one, it's a way of lowering the fuel to a wildfire…They use it to manage upcoming fires or possible fires, protecting things," she said. "The other thing is to adjust an eco system. Over time, certain species can take over…in the past fire was natural and it would come and burn all over and everything would start over again. Species would renew. When you control things all the time, there's not a time for rejuvenation. And our job in Parks is to look after everything. We have to look at all eco systems. So when an eco system gets lop sided then the biologists, through their studies, know when it's time that we need to make things better and we need to do a prescribed burn in this spot."

The April 2013 fire tore through the grasslands despite some previous controlled burns.

"The power that that fire had was beyond the work that they had done with prescribed burns, as were the roads. #4 Highway wasn't big enough, or the Ecotour Road. It was just unimaginable power."

Fortunately, park personnel simply regard the fire of a way for Mother Nature to rejuvenate her wardrobe.

"It's a fresh start. Prairie always comes back. It's a story of renewal."

Organizations: Grasslands National Park, Tourism Swift Current

Geographic location: Grasslands National Park, Canada, Ecotour Road

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