The 2009 Carpenter Lake Fire; Ecosystem Health and Function Overview Assessment

Site history

Natural fires historically burned at regular intervals in the Carpenter Lake area. By analysing carbon associated with charred trees fire history has been determined dating back to 1580. The natural fire return interval has ranged between 2 to 46 years with an average of 17 years. Of particular interest is that prior to 1920 the mean fire period was 13 years whereas it is over 25 years since then. Until we had the fire in 2009 we experienced a prolonged period of time without fire on this site. In short we have the technology, and use it to routinely control spot fires on high interval sites to what many feel is to the detriment of natural ecosystem function.

For half a century wildlife managers have recognized the negative ecological consequences of continued fire control in the Carpenter Lake area.  In recognition of the high ungulate winter range values of the area and the value of early seral stage vegetation as a critical component in maintaining the high value, attempts were made by MOE Wildlife Biologists in the early 70’s to improve forage production by conducting small scale mechanical and chemical treatments. Their monitoring results indicated marginal short-term success.

In 1989 and again in 2000, Wildlife Managers planned prescribed burn treatments for high priority deer and sheep winter range sites along Carpenter Lake. Stakeholders raised a variety of concerns. This resulted in plans being shelved.

The good news story!

In my opinion the 2009 Carpenter Lake fire has reversed the downward spiral of declining ecosystem function that has persisted for half a century. The wide variety of flora and fauna and their interactive processes that evolved and persisted through frequent fire occurrence have temporarily been released from the bottle neck caused by fire suppression.

Periodic burns reduce the incidence and impact of hot burning. In these ecosystems the longer the interval between fires the more fuel builds up and the more dramatic the results of fire. Frequent light burns reduce the likelihood of an intense burn removing all forms of vegetation and burning down to the mineral soil layer. This can result in the site being exposed to erosion, invasion by exotic plant species, and the slow colonization, or elimination of native plants.

Occurrence of invasive plant species

Invasive plants should be closely monitored. Field observation found there are a number of disturbed sites in the area that can contribute to invasive plant species spread and that are already inundated (e.g. highway corridor, back roads, power line, logging landings). With the 2009 fire comes another opportunity for these plants to expand and impact native species. Depending on the extent of invasion, over time this may cause a negative effect to the ecosystem that significantly reduces the positive benefits of low intensity fires. An invasive plant control program is paramount to the overall integrity of this currently healthy ecosystem.

Alpine and subalpine areas

Although the fire covered a fairly extensive area along Carpenter Lake, it was confined to lower elevation dryer ungulate winter range habitat that historically has been routinely subject to fire. The higher elevation, subalpine and alpine areas above Carpenter Lake where most of the horse pack trips occur was not exposed to fire.


In summary, the 2009 low intensity fire has caused a positive change to the ecosystem and its plant communities as well as reviving an early seral stage component that will be highly beneficial for wildlife populations. With increased forage opportunities the majority of wildlife species indigenous to the area ought to respond well. While ever changing, the burn will continue to function in a highly productive state but eventually revert back to the point where a fire is again required to stimulate productivity.