North News. Wildfire Edition.

Written by Steve Olson
Thursday, May 19, 2016

Steve OlsonI often describe the north as its own country, within a country. This applies to both the Alaska North and Canadian North, as similarities between each other outweigh differences. May brings Pilot Biologist Fred Roetker and me to the Canadian North to assist in the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. Given that we start our trek to the North via the south, we pass over areas intensively surveyed by southern air and ground crews, and we defer to them to provide you with updates.

Most of our news thus far will focus on wildfires. Yes, the same wildfires you likely heard about on National news. Fred and I have extensive history with Fort McMurray, Alberta: the area, the people, and the oil. Our most southern lines were blanketed in a smoky haze. Given the expansiveness of our survey lines, flight planning is normally up to the minute before takeoff, especially when smoke is a variable.

Stepping out from our first lodging camp, the smell of the north is ever-present, fresh with blossoming plants, water, and the sweet scent of wildfire smoke. I can’t answer to how or why my brain categorizes northern wildfire smoke as “sweet”, but I know it definitely pertains to the species of plants being consumed: mainly black spruce, aspen, willow, and Labrador tea.

As we completed our southernmost lines and continued north, we reached a restricted fly zone around Fort McMurray, Alberta, and had to divert around active fires, sky-blackening smoke, and aerial firefighting equipment. At first briefing, we southerners vastly underestimated the expansiveness and urgency of aerial firefighters using the few airports available as fuel and supply hubs. In previous years we were more than welcome to refuel at these hubs. This year, however, we were strictly told not to even think about landing amongst the fire suppression chaos. Upon bearing witness to the Fort McMurray fires, we fully grasped the situation and respected their position; the duck survey could continue without getting in their way.

Many questions from the south will likely arise. Is the fire under control (no)? Were we able to fly our survey around the fires (yes)? How long until the fire is under control (not likely until autumn)? What does this mean for waterfowl?

This last question requires an understanding of fire nature, northern infrastructure, and the complex habitat dynamics of the north. In our opinion, the boreal is a great expanse, fire has always played a role in boreal habitat dynamics, and most wildlife affected will displace to the rest of the boreal’s expansiveness. Ultimately, breeding waterfowl need water, and here is where it gets a little more complex. These fires are raging this year, mostly because the southern boreal is dry. Given the dryness, waterfowl densities would have been low, regardless of wildfires. Also, because of the timing of the fires, few early-initiated nests would be affected. We expect to count greater densities of waterfowl away from fires and the dryness of the northern prairie and southern boreal.

Dry conditions are not exactly as detrimental in the boreal (north). In greater water years, it seems that the best nesting habitat is under water. So, during drier years a buffer of grasses and forbs exist between the water and the forests, which undoubtedly increases nesting habitat. These of course, are our thoughts. The boreal is one of the least intensively studied breeding habitats, thus our understanding is more off-the-cuff observational science. We will keep you abreast of our observations as our survey progresses.

Wildfire and Ducks, Fort McMurray, Alberta

Wildfire and Ducks, Fort McMurray, Alberta. The crew left Buffalo Narrows, Saskatchewan after fueling, and flew around the Ft. McMurray wildfires; cutting off a few segments of survey transects to avoid aerial complications. Video taken by Steve Olson, USFWS.

The Northwest Territories 2016 Flight Crew: Steve Olson (left) and Fred Roetker (right). Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

The Northwest Territories 2016 Flight Crew: Steve Olson (left) and Fred Roetker (right). Photo Credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Northern Alberta. The water level in northern Alberta boreal is in a recession, but what is evident is the exposed buffer which the crew hypothesizes as great nesting habitat. Photo credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Northern Alberta. The water level in northern Alberta boreal is in a recession, but what is evident is the exposed buffer which the crew hypothesizes as great nesting habitat. Photo credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Mac fires. The crew had to divert around national news-covered forest fires raging around Fort McMurray. Photo credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.

Mac fires. The crew had to divert around national news-covered forest fires raging around Fort McMurray. Photo credit: Steve Olson, USFWS.