Fire is bad. At least that’s what Brian Benscoter learned from the Smokey-the-Bear message about forest fires while growing up in New Jersey. Now the post-doc in Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology has a different take.

Fire is actually a good thing for natural ecosystems, he says. But now there’s a different reason to worry — one that Benscoter studies in Western Canada along with his supervisor, Prof. Merritt Turetsky.

The self-described fire ecologist looks at how blazes affect wetlands. He says we should be worried about peat reserves that lock up about one-third of the carbon found on land, much of it stored in northern Canada and Russia. Release that carbon through fire, he says, and who knows what the consequences might be for global warming.

Worse than that, climate change may even accelerate the process. In a chicken-and-egg scenario, scientists expect climate change to cause more fires in the first place, says Benscoter. Current models suggest that, over the next 50 years, wildfires in Canada’s boreal north will increase in severity and extent by about 30 per cent.

“Until recently, we thought peatlands didn’t burn,” he says. Indeed, that belief still holds among more than a few scoffing firefighters, he says. But these regions do indeed burn, even in marshy areas.

Benscoter studies the effects of wildfire on the area ecology, including its benefits for regenerating plants, removing old growth and maintaining animal habitat.

“Fire helps to reset ecosystems,” he says. “Plants, animals and ecosystems have evolved to rely on fire.”

A newly scorched landscape appears to be dead, he says, but “within days, green vegetation is coming up. It’s a system that’s full of life, not this barren wasteland.”

Benscoter works at the Meanook Biological Research Station, run by the University of Alberta north of Edmonton. The station occupies a 200-hectare national wildlife area where aspen parkland meets boreal forest at the southern boundary of Canada’s peatlands.

He’s been visiting the area for about 10 years, spending weeks or months at a time. In March, he will work there with a hydrologist, measuring snow and making a water budget from snowmelt.

Benscoter often visits shortly after fire crews have extinguished a blaze, even when the area is still smouldering. He’s interested in what has burned and where, types of fuels and the extent and depth of peat deposits.

He also studies historical fires, using air photos and historical data.

Learn about burning peatlands, says Benscoter, and you can get an idea of likely carbon emissions. He and his co-researchers have developed models to estimate burn depth and area. That information may help managers in predicting and controlling fires.

If he’s not threatened by fire itself while trekking with a portable gas analyzer through a blackened landscape, there are other hazards.

“I’ve been chased by a moose twice and stumbled on a bull elk once in mating season.”

He began visiting Western Canada for his master’s degree at Villanova University in Pennsylvania; he’d become interested in fire ecology during a Florida field trip as an undergrad at Villanova. He completed a PhD at Southern Illinois University.

This fall, Benscoter will begin a faculty post at Florida Atlantic University.