Meadows blaze to spark new life in Cowichan preserve

One of Canada’s most threatened ecosystems got a big boost last Saturday as the Nature Conservancy of Canada conducted a series of controlled burns designed to reinvigorate the meadows of the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

Just over three acres were burned by crews from the Nature Conservancy and the Ministry of Forests, the largest burn ever conducted at the preserve. Burns have been conducted at the site for some time, but only in the last two years have they been more than an acre in size.

"We have been burning in a small way for a number of years already, but those were test plots, research scenarios," site manager Irvin Banman said.

Setting fire to a plot of sensitive grassland might seem counterintuitive to ecology, but it is necessary in order to keep the Garry oak meadows thriving.

"Garry oak ecosystems are fireadapted ecosystems," Banman said.

Thanks to ample data from more than a decade of research at the Cowichan site, the crews on hand knew exactly what they were doing. Specifically important was limiting below-ground heat penetration that could damage the native wildflowers that are dormant this time of year.

"We know that fire is effective in the meadows because of research that’s been going on about 15 years now, specifically at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve," Banman said.

According to Banman, the Garry oak meadows of Vancouver Island are the most-threatened ecosystem in B.C. and the second most-threatened in Canada, despite once ranging far and wide.

"Most people don’t know that there were about 35,000 acres of Garry oak meadow in the Cowichan Valley when settlers arrived," he related. "Now in the Valley we have less than 100 acres right now."

Present along with Nature Conservancy officials on Saturday were firefighters from the Coast Fire Centre’s Cobble Hill Fire Base, along with more personnel from Sechelt. Representatives from Cowichan Tribes were also on hand. The area around the preserve has been Garry oak meadow for more than 2,000 years, and was historically managed, with much larger burns, by the First Nations.

"They did it for specific purposes, such as to encourage growth of camas, which was their main carbohydrate," Banman explained. "It’s great for hunting; it kept the landscape open so they could see their enemies coming.

"When the settlers arrived, they looked at it as a bad thing, whereas First Nations knew how to work with it."

Other parties interested in the burns at the Cowichan preserve are Parks Canada, who want to do similar burns on Garry oak meadows in the Gulf Islands, and BC Parks.

The Nature Conservancy plans to do at least one burn at the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve every year, and Banman expects burns will become more common at other similar ecosystems.

"Other jurisdictions are hoping to carry out burns in a more controlled fashion," he said. "The general consensus around restoration is that fire is needed."

All the work, Banman emphasized, is "research-driven and research-based."

"We have a team of experts assembled and access to the water-pumping system," he said. We’re not just out there playing with matches. It’s a well thoughtout process."