Mauricie National Park
From our correspondent in Quebec
In a burned forest, we expect to walk in a monastic silence, just interspersed with the sound of dead wood breaking under our feet. But the charred forest throbs. Woodpeckers have a great time, the nuthatch chirps together and other animals bask in the sun, or meander gently in the ashes.
“Oh the big snake! », is moved Kim Charron-Charbonneau. The coordinator of the conservation and restoration project at La Mauricie National Park, located 200 kilometers north of Montreal, avoids a long striped snake that was making its way through the clearing by an inch. “You see a lot of snakes in freshly burned forests, they appreciate this more airy forest cover that lets the sun in, she specifies. They are also fond, like other species, of the nutrients brought by the fire. »
At Lake Modena, this little corner of the park reduced to ashes over 53 hectares, black bears feed on the berries that grow around the trunks blackened by the flames, the imposing moose scratch their flanks on the burned stumps and the birds gorge themselves of insects that colonize trees emptied by fire.
If the west of Canada was last year, as often, the scene of colossal fires, the fire, in the forests of Quebec, is rarer and… more appreciated. Here, fire is not an enemy that we fear, but a friend who wants good for the forest, if it is well controlled. Parks Canada has been carrying out prescribed burns there for thirty-one years.
“Like water, fire must have its place in the forest, it allows it to keep its ecological integrity”, explains Kim Charron-Charbonneau. With these planned fires, in controlled doses, the Parks Canada team hopes to reduce the risk of uncontrolled fires, by cutting the rug out from under them, by eliminating dry wood, dead leaves and everything that constitutes fuel in the floor. It also intends to facilitate the regeneration of certain species, such as white pine or red oak, which need their competitors to burn to thrive in this human-sized forest.
“Mauricie Park may not be the flagship product that sells trips to Canada”, smiles Marc-André Valiquette, ecologist at Parks Canada. Its trees are not the size of the giants of the Great Western Canadian rain forests that stare at the tourist. “This set of immense forests surrounding 150 lakes is nevertheless exceptional”, he pleads. Even if it was necessary to wait until 1970 to protect it, whereas the park of Banff, in the Rockies, was it from the end of the XIXe century.
“At first glance, this magnificent territory seems to have never been touched. On closer inspection, we see that the man has left his mark strongly, “ he continues. Evidenced by the trace of old forest roads remained engraved in the relief. “The very instructive study of survey books from the 19e century showed that there were seven times as many pines before man began to exploit them on an industrial scale”, reports Kim Charron-Charbonneau.
“And the drive haslargely shaped the forest,” she adds, referring to this perilous art that brought the region to life. After the thaw, the raftsmen, risk-all lumberjacks, ran the logs they had cut down over the water, risking their lives. They had to control their flotation with their pike, along the rivers to the pulp mills. The practice was so intense that the park undertook a huge clearing project, to remove the thousands of trunks that sank, lined and suffocated the bottom of lakes and rivers, in order to restore these degraded ecological environments.
Systematic firefighting, a constant since the 1950s, has also, paradoxically, been harmful. “Over time, we realized that it had prevented the regeneration of ancestral essences. Without the rhythm of natural fires, the forest becomes impoverished and homogenized,” explains Kim Charron-Charbonneau. “Today’s aging forest has a very different appearance and rate of renewal than that of more than two hundred years ago. Many species have become rare. The white pine, for example, is being smothered by the balsam fir, which proliferates, even in the shade,” she continues.
The park agents therefore come to light the fire, to pamper the white pine, to help it regain its place as in the forest of yesteryear, before the hand of man comes to weaken it. On the 536 km2 of the park, nearly 4% were the scene of prescribed burns.
Philippe Moisan-Gaudet is a volunteer firefighter and arsonist. “I have my head in the fire a little all the time”, smiled mockingly, the park fire officer, expert on these burns. “People imagine that we leave with our match and that we wait to see what happens. But it is extremely meticulous work that we prepare, sometimes up to two years in advance,” he specifies. Everything must be calibrated: circumscribe the perimeter using natural firebreaks, such as rivers or wetlands, finely analyze the slopes of the land, assess the volume of dry wood on the ground, etc.
When the planets are finally aligned, and the winds favorable, Philippe, Kim and the others set off. “The morning of a burn, there is excitement in the air, even if we measure all the work done upstream”, testifies Philippe Moisan-Gaudet, the man of the first spark, triggered either using a manual burner, a kind of watering can filled with fuel, or thanks to a Red Dragon which, from a helicopter, throws balls of Potassium permanganate. “When they fall to the ground, these balls cause a chemical reaction and slowly catch fire, explains the fire expert. With the wind, the fire will move on its own. » But under close aerial surveillance. “If we don’t have our eyes on it, and the next day we go back to do a patrol, presto, 50 hectares can be gone. A brand can reach tens of meters on the ground and start the fire elsewhere, “ he dreads. Everyone remembers the use in extremis of tanker planes to put out the fire that had spread over several hectares at Lac Anticagamac, a remote place in the park, some twenty years ago.
In one of the old areas burned more than twenty-five years ago, where there were only 1,000 pines per hectare, more than 14,000 have now been counted among the oaks, maples, white spruce and yellow birch. “It’s like pressing the ‘reset’ button on a forest. For her to live well,it needs to be warm! We are sometimes criticized, we are criticized for playing Mother Nature, but we just want to help the forest,” justifies Philippe Moisan-Gaudet. “We try to respect the forest mosaic, that is to say this mixture of forests of all ages, young and old, which offer species the full range of their needs. Otherwise, biodiversity declines.” he laments.
In the forests of old trees, the less warm and less well-lit ground is partly abandoned by the animals. While many species prefer nascent forests, covered with young shoots. Immediately after a fire, life swarms quickly. Beetles are among the first to settle. They attract birds of the woodpecker family, which can be fifty times more numerous in a recently burned forest.
At the time of leaving the premises, a young and slender snake who is lounging in a clearing almost lets himself be approached. Perhaps to show that she appreciates the effort of men to revive the forest of the past.