Burns Bog Fog and Frost, photo by David Blevins
Burns Bog Burns
by Hugh Griffith
Burns Bog is on fire again, and an impressive river of grey-brown smoke is streaming north over Burnaby. A peat bog fire can be problematical, if your intent is to put it out. Peat is partially decayed plant material that over time forms thick mats. It can burn long and deep, and secretively. An underground smoulderer can touch a pine root and start the conflagration up again long after it seemed doused.
I am surprised when locals aren’t sure where Burns Bog is. "It’s that big forest along the sides of the road as you go south off the Alex Fraser Bridge," is what I say. Burns Bog is sometimes referred to as the largest undeveloped urban land mass – which seems slightly oxymoronic – in North America. If you’re lucky, you may see deer or even beaver getting dangerously close to the highway as you pass through it.
From the air it is far from pristine. Its surface has been scoured by draining, peat mining and cranberry farming, the same practices that obliterated most of the once similarly extensive bog lands in Richmond. But what remains of Burns Bog is big enough that there are sanctuaries for large animals such as bear, deer and sandhill cranes, and smaller species susceptible to disturbance, thus lost to us elsewhere in the Lower Mainland.
Fires in bogs are a sustaining force, clearing the brush that would eventually shade out the sphagnum moss, which is the source of the peat, what builds and maintains the bog. In the absence of fire or other controlling action, the balance is easily tipped toward invasive plants, such as highbush (domestic) blueberry and birch, which is what has happened to Richmond’s remnant bogs in the Richmond Nature Park.
The most ecologically intact piece of bog in Richmond is the quarter block in between Shell and No 4 roads, known as the DND land. Although that property has not experienced a recent major fire, it has occasionally been subjected to a man-made substitute, mowing.
It is officially off limits, but heavily visited at this time of year by blueberry pickers, who both cause and report fires. One small fire occurred a year ago close to Shell Road but was hastily extinguished.
In the centre of that land you get a sense of old, wild Richmond, a pleasant respite at a time when we seem to be obsessed with things new. In among dwarfed shore pines there are hummocks of sphagnum and Labrador tea, vast mats of carnivorous sundew, and patches of cloudberry, an arctic plant left behind by the last ice age. That land remains a nesting place for waterfowl and raptors such as northern harrier, and a hunting ground for barn owls.
A fire in the bog is not really a problem. A layer of asphalt? Now that would be a problem.
Hugh Griffith is a BC biologist
and science writer.