Quick Hits: Forest Fires and Soil Renewal

A forest fire burns in Northern Ontario.

A forest fire burns in Northern Ontario.

The following is from a letter written by Thunder Bay businessman George Wardrope to the recently elected leader of the Ontario Conservative Party (and future Lt. Governor of Ontario) the Honourable William Earl Rowe. In the letter, Mr. Wardrope complains about the multiple failures of the current Liberal Government of Ontario, headed by Premier Mitchell Hepburn. Among the government’s many perceived failings was its unwillingness to fund forestry services in the province, supposedly resulting in massive forest fires in Norther Ontario during the summer of 1936. While Wardrope lists six key reasons why these forest fires are calamitous for Northern Ontario, I want to highlight reason number one and five. The first argument Wardrope makes for the destructive power of the fires is:

The burning off the top soul, which is the basic treasure house of posterity. Due to the lack of personnel and equipment, through lack of Government co-operation, the top soul has been burned and this has impoverished posterity and is likely to leave us with large tracts of desert such as in New Mexico, where nothing can grow.

He then goes on to explain that “the destruction by fire will cause a failure of forest and plant growth.” For Wardrope, it is clear that forest fires are entirely destructive, burning up not only valuable timber resources and destroying the habitat of fur-bearing animals, but also literally scorching the soil and making the land into a literal desert.

Such a view makes a certain degree of intuitive sense. Forest fires seem to be the ultimate in natural destruction. The landscape after a fire has passed appears to be utterly devoid of life and in one respect Wardrope is write about the destructive power of forest fires, the immediate economic value of the forest is destroyed. Timber can no longer be harvested from the burned land and any fur-bearing animals have either fled or been cooked. However, even in the 1930s, Wardrope’s view was becoming outdated. Thanks to extensive research undertaken in the US as part of the New Deal government programs, forest management practices began to change as people realized that forest fires were a necessary tool for revitalizing the landscape. Rather than representing pure destruction, fires actually represent renewal.

In the present day, fire, in the form of controlled burns, is an effective tool of forestry management. So maybe, in this case, the answer to the question 1930s or today is easy to answer!


Note: This letter can be found on Microfilm Reel M-9015 at Library and Archives Canada. It is from Volume 123, File 1256 in the George Drew Fonds MG32 C 3.


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