Campfires can be a great way to enjoy the outdoors, but they also pose a threat to sensitive alpine environments, according to the chair of Vancouver Island’s Alpine Club of Canada chapter.
“What might have not been a problem ten years ago, when there were many fewer people, becomes potentially a crisis, with the number of people we’re seeing in the backcountry now,” said Catrin Brown.
Alpine ecosystems have a very short growing season, due to the harsh, often windy, conditions and lower temperatures, according to Brown. When hikers remove wood for a campfire, the impact is much higher than it would be at a lower altitude because there are fewer trees.
“When you remove something, you change everything. You are having an impact that will not be quickly reversed,” said Brown.
Removing wood or cutting down a tree has an effect on the entire food web, she said.
“It acts as a shelter for many organisms. Its breakdown is part of the natural cycle. The production of soil comes from these decomposition processes and then from soil and microorganisms — plants flourish,” she said.
Barry Hansen has been hiking in alpine environments for decades and said he has seen an increase in activity in the past few years and even more since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said during a recent hike through Strathcona Provincial Park, where fires are banned year-round, he saw lots of evidence of campfires.
“We found many fire rings. Some were massive at some of the lakes and some were even up in the higher alpine rock areas. We were just shocked at how many people were burning back in there,” he said.
These fragile ecosystems are home to many species, which have adapted to high altitudes and are not found in great abundance elsewhere, according to Brown. Vancouver Island’s alpine and subalpine environments also feature old-growth trees.
“The ones in the alpine don’t seem that impressive, but they’re just as old. They’re hundreds of years old and can be quite small and there’s not many of them,” said Hansen, referring to trees shaped in a stunted and twisted pattern due to strong winds known as “krummholz.”
Brown and Hansen both said they would like to see more education about the effects of campfires in the alpine, rather than getting legislation passed.
“I really do believe most people want to do the right thing. They’re there because they love the mountains and I don’t think they willfully want to take that opportunity away from other people,” said Brown.
Hansen encouraged hikers to practice Leave No Trace principles — bring back everything you came in with on a hike and leave behind only footprints.
“I would say one of the obvious things to do is — for cooking — carry a lightweight stove, which leaves no trace. Avoid making fires wherever possible because I can’t think of a way of doing it in the alpine that truly leaves no trace,” said Brown.