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Ontario island set on fire by Parks Canada to help rare pine trees flourish

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CAMELOT ISLAND, Ont. - Starting a forest fire on an island in the middle of the summer is not something people associate with Parks Canada, but that's exactly what the federal agency had been carefully planning for years.

Finally, with the weather conditions just right, fire crews descended on one of Ontario's Thousand Islands on Tuesday to set fire to part of the land mass — all in the hopes that a rare, fire-dependent pine tree would rise from the ashes.

"We've been waiting a few years to finish this one off," said Katie Ellsworth, fire management co-ordinator with the Thousand Islands National Park, noting that the plan to set a portion of Camelot Island ablaze was first conceived in 2009. "This year we finally got the window."

The target of the "prescribed fire" was the Pitch Pine, a tree which can resprout even after its main trunk is burnt in a fire.

In Canada, the tree is found in eastern Ontario along the St. Lawrence River, which winds its way through the Thousand Islands, and in some parts of southern Quebec.

While the Pitch Pine historically was able to flourish with the help of fires sparked naturally through lightning strikes and traditionally by First Nations people, modern-day fire suppression has put it at a disadvantage.

"They're very shade intolerant," explained park superintendent Jeff Leggo, who accompanied reporters on a tour of the island as the fire crackled its way over the terrain's woody undergrowth."

"The objective, is to sort of level the playing field as far as competition for light goes. The other one is to burn up the duff layer — the organic layer that's on the forest floor — so that seeds can be accepted into mineral soil."

The Pitch Pine is also of particular significance to park which sits on the Canada-U.S. border, some 300 kilometres east of Toronto.

"They're very representative of the area," Leggo said. "They're certainly an important part of the Thousand Islands ecosystem."

Tuesday's efforts, which sent up billowing plumes of grey smoke above Camelot Island, were only given the go-ahead late last week, when park staff realized the ideal conditions — or "prescription window"— was approaching.

"On Friday, it was a go," explained Leggo. "These things come up pretty quickly and it's the sort of management action you kind of have to drop whatever you're doing for."

Waiting for the perfect time to carry out the prescribed fire was important because a blaze too strong or too weak would ruin the Pitch Pine's chances of flourishing.

"If you're higher than what the parameters are then it's too risky to undertake, because then you're starting to look into getting into wildfires," explained Leggo. "And if you're under what the prescription says then you won't meet the objectives you have.

With just the right levels of humidity, soil moisture and wind conditions expected this week, a 16-member crew sprung into action.

Camelot Island, which has public docks and campsites on its east end, was first closed to the public a day before the burn. Park staff also notified area residents, businesses, coast guards and fire departments of their plans.

Crews then established a perimeter around the 1.06 hectare portion of the island — on its rugged west end — which would be set on fire.

On Tuesday afternoon, under sunny blue skies, Parks Canada fire teams used drip torches — red canisters filled with a flammable fluid — to ignite portions of the island in a specific pattern based on wind direction and the topography of the land.

At the same time, crews using long fire hoses controlled the path of the fire, ensuring it didn't burn any further than it had to.

A number of passing boats paused off the rocky shoreline of the island to take in the bright orange flames that crept over the rough, wooded terrain.

A local fire department, stationed in a boat off the island, was used to douse large mature trees when flames raced up their trunks on occasion.

"The objective of the prescribed fire is not to clear the landscape like a bulldozer, it's to act in a natural way. By spraying some water on some of the taller trees it just ensured that they didn't get lit on fire," explained Parks Canada spokesman Bruce MacMillan.

The fire was allowed to actively burn for just over two hours and was then left to smoulder as crews worked to douse hot spots.

"It went very, very smoothly," MacMillan said of the effort. "There was nothing unexpected, or fears, or dangers. It all went according to plan."

It was the fourth time the Thousand Islands National Park used prescribed fires to help balance its ecosystem. The region was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2002.

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