Controlled fires rejuvenate Okanagan Valley wildlife

Biologists in B.C.'s Central Okanagan region will be using fire to help the local deer population this year.

Craig McLean, a wildlife biologist with B.C.'s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, says a lot of the wildlife in the region survives on "fire successional species."

"When the fire goes through, [it] removes the old and woody unpalatable boughs. The regrowth that comes out after the fire is higher in nutrition and more beneficial for the existing wildlife," he explained.

Along with a number of community groups, these biologists will be using a controlled fire technique in the Garnet Valley — a critical site for mule deer — to mimic the benefits of a wildfire.

McLean said it's not just deer that will benefit.

"Mountain goats, mountain sheep ... a variety of songbirds thrive on more open, recent burns," he said.

"It runs the gamut from reptiles all the way up to big furry critters like black bear and moose."

Historically there have been natural fires in the region, McLean said, but such fires have largely been contained.

"We're sensitive to losing homes and housing in the area. We tend to actively extinguish fires," he said.

Prescribed burns are a fairly common wildlife management technique across the country, and McLean said it will be very carefully managed in the Central Okanagan.

"We identify our critical site and habitat and then we work with a registered forester who's a burn boss. He develops a burn plan for us and it goes through what is a safe area to burn, what are the conditions that we want, where are our safe edges, and what do we want our burn boundaries to be. Then we develop an ignition plan so we can safely ignite an area with minimal risk."

Currently McLean's team is working on thinning out trees and identifying the critical site.

After they factor in weather and wind conditions, they will determine exactly when the burn will take place, likely early spring or early fall.

McLean said it's impressive to watch how fast nature bounces back.

"It's great to see," he said. "You do these ignitions in the early spring and you burn off a bunch of stuff and it's all black and this looks really bad, and you come back three months later and you'll have two to three feet of fresh growth."

With files from Radio West