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Logging in Banff to Save it from Canada’s Wildfires

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The loggers’ work was unmistakable.

Flanked by dense forests, the mile-long, 81-acre expanse of land on the mountainside had been stripped nearly clean. Only scattered trees still stood, while some skinny felled trunks had been left behind. A path carved out by logging trucks was visible under a light blanket of snow.

The harvesting of trees would be routine in a commercial forest — but this was in Banff, Canada’s most famous national park. Clear-cutting was once unimaginable in this green jewel in the Canadian Rockies, where the longstanding policy was to strictly suppress every fire and preserve every tree.

But facing a growing threat of wildfires, national park caretakers are increasingly turning to loggers to create fire guards: buffers to stop forest fires from advancing into the rest of the park and nearby towns.

“If you were to get a highly intense, rapidly spreading wildfire, this gives fire managers options,’’ David Tavernini, a fire and vegetation expert at Parks Canada, the federal agency that manages national parks, said as he treaded on the cleared forest’s soft floor.

Still reeling from its worst wildfire season on record last year, Canada is now confronting the quick start of a new one. So-called zombie fires, which smoldered under snow-covered ground during the winter, have sprung to life and forced thousands to flee from affected cities and towns in Western Canada.

Coming out of Canada’s warmest winter in history, communities near forests are bracing for another tough wildfire season, and for a future increasingly prone to wildfires as a result of climate change.

Long-planned measures meant to protect against wildfires — like the fire guard in Alberta’s Banff park and other projects in the town of Banff — have taken on a greater sense of urgency.

Last year, a dozen fires were ignited, mostly from lightning, in Banff and two adjoining national parks, including three near the new fire guard. They were quickly extinguished.

But across Alberta, the impact of last year’s record wildfire season was “massive,’’ said Katherine Severson, director of emergency services in the town of Banff.

The increased number of fires in sparsely populated areas of Canada has affected not only nearby communities, but also distant ones, with the intense smoke they have generated floating into southern Canada and into the United States.

“It’s now normal — every single day, cities and towns are making decisions on whether they can hold outdoor activities because of smoke,’’ Ms. Severson said.

Last year, wildfires scorched 18.5 million hectares, or 46 million acres, of land in Canada, more than doubling the previous record set two decades ago, and sending smoke as far away as Europe. Fires spread uncontrollably across the country, not only in Western provinces accustomed to blazes, but also in Quebec and the Maritimes, where such large fires are rare.

This spring, much of Alberta is facing drought conditions. In the Rockies, the snowpack was “exceptionally low,’’ said John Pomeroy, a hydrologist based near Banff and the director of the Global Water Futures Program.

“As a setup for this time of the year, it looks worse than last year,’’ Mr. Pomeroy said. “But I qualify that by saying that lots could change. Last year, we also had record heat and lack of rainfall.’’

Extreme heat and unusual weather patterns helped create the conditions that led to last year’s record wildfire season, said Michael Flannigan, an expert on fire management at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia.

“Last year was a real outlier,’’ Mr. Flannigan said. “So statistically, it’s unlikely that you’ll get another outlier.’’

Still, wildfire firefighting agencies across the country — which traditionally hired personnel only during fire seasons and included university students on summer jobs — are starting to employ professionals year round as fire seasons grow longer, Mr. Flannigan said.

In British Columbia, Mr. Flannigan said some “overwintering zombie fires’’ were so big that firefighting crews could not extinguish them along their perimeters, and they are now actively burning.

“The fire season ended so late last year that they didn’t have time to do as much mop up as they would have liked,’’ he said.

In northern Alberta, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation reserve is one of many communities beefing up their firefighting capacity against the growing threat of wildfires. Its fire agency now has 20 volunteers, up from seven last year, said Shane Bair, the fire chief and director of emergency services.

Last year, a human-caused fire on a ranch inside the reserve burned 157 acres of land and came within half a kilometer, or 540 yards, of homes. Residents of 23 houses were evacuated as firefighters struggled to control the fire, fed by powerful winds and extremely dry conditions, Mr. Bair said.

To reduce the risk of a repeat, Mr. Bair’s crew carried out four controlled burns on the reserve this year to get rid of potentially flammable grass in large, open areas.

“It hadn’t burned for a few years, so we really wanted to get that part done,’’ he said. “We saw it as a high-risk, high traffic area.’’

The community had hoped to perform more controlled burns but was limited by the mild winter, he said. Snow melted quickly and little water was absorbed into the ground.

“Usually, we want to do those burns while there’s still snow on the ground, so our window was very small,’’ Mr. Bair said.

In the town of Banff, officials have cut down trees in forested areas on the community’s edges to make them less dense and flammable. Embers from advancing fires can travel two kilometers, or 1.2 miles, in the air, igniting fires in areas across bodies of water, said Russ Geyer, the fire chief.

Firefighters must protect both residents and visitors to the town of Banff, whose population of 9,000 can swell to 40,000 during summer weekends.

Banff National Park — with its majestic mountains, turquoise water lakes, glaciers and rich wildlife — is by far Canada’s most popular national park, drawing more than 4 million visitors each year from all over the world.

In the town of Banff, fire officials are encouraging homeowners to make their homes safer by trimming low-hanging branches on conifers, installing sprinklers and upgrading wooden roofs with fire-resistant material, Mr. Geyer said, adding that some initiatives had started two decades ago.

“We started slow and people saw that as something we were doing, but it wasn’t that urgent,’’ Mr. Geyer said.

In recent years, a rethinking of how to manage forests against fires has also been underway.

In Banff National Park, which was created in 1885 and is Canada’s oldest, officials until 1983 hewed to a strict policy of fire suppression, rather than take significant steps to prevent or manage fires.

The result now is a landscape of dense forests dominated by conifers, which are extremely flammable.

Historical photos of the area before the park was established show a greater variety of trees and more open spaces, said Mr. Tavernini, the fire and vegetation expert at Parks Canada. Lightning and controlled burns by the local Indigenous people regularly thinned out the forests, he said.

In recent years, parks officials have carried out controlled burns. But perhaps nothing is as large and visually dramatic as the 81-acre fire guard, which was completed last year, along a main road inside Banff park.

An even larger fire guard was finished this winter in adjoining Yoho National Park. Work on a third one — near Lake Louise, one of Banff’s most popular spots — could get underway later this year.

A logging company was hired to cut down the trees on the first two sites, carrying out the projects in return for the lumber. Parks Canada also got a total of 80,000 in Canadian dollars from the sale of the harvested lumber at the two fire guards, said Shelly Tamelin, project manager for wildfire risk reduction at Parks Canada.

Cleared of flammable conifers, the fireguards are designed to stop advancing fires from spreading beyond them. They also provide staging areas for firefighters to directly attack fires by drawing water from nearby ponds.

At the same time, parks officials were aware of the need to move gingerly with clear-cuts in cherished national parks.

“We’re trying to pick areas,’’ Ms. Tamelin said, “where we have to remove the fewest amount of trees to create the widest open space.’’