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Forest Fires

Types of Engineering involved: Forestry

In Canada, every summer, approximately 9000 fires flare up. They consume about 3 million hectares of trees and vegetation. Because many First Nations communities are in or near forested areas, fires and their control directly impact many Aboriginal people each year.

Wildfires are a part of the Earth's natural process of renewal. They help to recycle dead plant material into the soil; certain plants, especially fir trees, have seeds which are only easily released by the heat of fire. Natural wildfires are usually caused by lightning. In areas where there is large build up of dead vegetation, small contained fires are sometimes deliberately set to prevent larger more destructive fires. Unfortunately, many fires are also caused by human carelessness: campfires left unattended or cigarette butts flicked into the bush can easily and quickly ignite dried vegetation and even tree roots. It is these accidental fires which often cause the most damage.

By themselves wildfires do little damage and burn out quickly. In fact, only 200-300 fires each year will consume more than 200 hectares of forest and wildland. Unfortunately, this 2-3% of fires account for almost 97% of the annual area burned. These fires generally occur in places where a huge amount of dead plant material has built up over a long period of time and provides fuel for an out-of-control inferno.

When forest fire season starts, hundreds of trained volunteers and professional fire fighters battle the blazes in order to protect natural resources, towns, people and wildlife. On the ground, they haul heavy pumps and hoses. Using axes, chainsaws and other hand tools they create firebreaks to slow or stop the spread of flames. In the air, helicopters and airplanes dump water and chemicals on the fires to stop their spread. Forestry engineers work with these people and advise on forest fire management, prevention and control.

Some of the information used for this article was found at National Aboriginal Forestry Association and Canadian Forest Service.

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