Short-term effects of wildfire in boreal peatlands: Does fire mitigate the linear footprint of oil and gas exploration?

Jaime Pinzon
Anna Dabros
Federico Riva
James R N Glasier

Exploration practices for oil sands developments in the boreal forest of western Canada create a network of thousands of kilometers of linear features, particularly seismic lines that dissect these forests posing significant environmental challenges. As wildfire is one of the prevalent stand-replacing natural disturbances in the Canadian boreal forest, it is an important driver of environmental change and stand development that may contribute to the mitigation of such linear industrial footprint. Here, we evaluate the short-term cumulative (also known as combined) effects of seismic lines and wildfire on biodiversity and site conditions. One year after the Horse River (Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada) fire event in the spring of 2016, we compared dissected and undisturbed forests in burned and unburned boreal peatlands, assessing changes in overall stand structure and the responses of a variety of organisms. Soil moisture was significantly higher on seismic lines than in the adjacent forest, suggesting why most of the study sites within the fire perimeter showed little evidence of burning at the line in relation to the adjacent forest. Low fire severity on seismic lines seemed an important driver of local species diversity for ants, beetles, spiders, and plants in disturbed peatlands, resulting in similar species composition on seismic lines both within and outside the burned area, but different assemblages in burned and unburned adjacent forests. Our results suggest that fire did not erase seismic lines; rather, wildfire might increase the influence of this footprint on the recovering adjacent forest. Longer-term monitoring will be necessary to understand how boreal treed peatlands respond to the cumulative effect of wildfire and linear disturbances.