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Experts say Fort McMurray’s boreal forest is already bouncing back

Boreal forest

Metre-high aspens shooting out of the ground, black-backed woodpeckers gorging on insects, and those insects feeding on dead and dying trees—they’re all signs that Alberta’s torched boreal forest is bouncing back.

Nearly 6,000 kilometres of boreal forest was torched in a wildfire that swept through Fort McMurray last spring, causing more than 80,000 residents to evacuate the northern Alberta city. But according to Dan Thompson, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, wildfires are a natural part of a boreal forest’s life cycle.

“Even though we had really bad human consequences, the natural consequences of this fire are just a tiny, tiny fraction of what the human consequences were,” he told CBC News.

In fact, the wet, warm summer that the region experienced following the wildfire created ideal conditions for growth, and experts say that the forest’s aspens will have grown to pre-fire levels in as little as 30 years.

“The ecosystem there is really adaptive to fire,” Thompson said—at least when it comes to some species. Although the destruction of older trees, which provide lichen for caribou to feed on and homes for martens and fishers, means that these populations won’t recover any time soon, other species are thriving.

The woodpeckers, for instance, will explode in post-fire habitat, as they gorge on the bugs that are attracted to the region’s dead and dying trees, like the white-spotted long-horn beetle.

In just a short time, the matchstick-like trees will fall and new, lush branches will take their place. Steven Van Wilgenburg, a boreal ecologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, told CBC that in a dozen years, most people will hardly notice signs of the wildfire.

“It is remarkable how quickly you can no longer easily tell that a forest fire was through an area,” he said.