Fire. At once terrifying and mesmerizing. Memorable public service campaigns of bygone eras were full of misinformation suggesting that fire is unnatural and must be kept off the landscape. For many wetlands and habitat of imperiled species, however, the use of fire is requisite, otherwise our forests and wetlands can become overgrown with debris, brush, trees, and so forth. Though some plants and animals require these overgrown conditions, for many imperiled species, the judicious use of fire is necessary to maintain preferable living conditions.
Last week WES marked by reintroducing fire to a landscape that had been starved of it for several decades. Prior to WES buying the property that would become St. Marks Mitigation Bank in 2008, it had been used to maximize the production of wood fiber at the expense of other ecosystem values. One of the values subsumed were the open and park-like forest conditions created and maintained by fire. Pre-restoration, the property was essentially a closed canopy forest of pine trees and a thick tangle of head-high shrubs. Few grasses or other fire dependent herbaceous plants remained. As a result, rare animals such as Henslow’s Sparrows, Loggerhead Shrikes and Bobwhite Quail had long since flown away from this location. This first fire is one of many necessary to restore this forested grassland habitat needed for these birds and other animals.
Fire is rogue. When managers apply fire to the land, the challenge is to domesticate it, as by nature it wants to run wild. Think of it as letting a bull out of the rodeo chute. The role of the fire-practitioner is to make sure the bull does not exit the arena or, in this case, allow the fire to leave the property. In order for that to happen, a great deal of advance planning has to take place. The planning will start years in advance with choosing the right sight. St. Marks Mitigation Bank is in close proximity to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge where fire has been used as a forest management tool for decades, so the local population around the mitigation bank is accustomed to seeing (and smelling) frequent forest fires. Budgets necessary to fund burning must also be established; in the case of mitigation banks this is typically accomplished by placing the entire amount of funds necessary to complete this task in an endowment. For conservation land owners, burning can be excluded from the list of activities in lean budget years.
The judicious use of prescribed fire is more than merely going out and dropping a match. In the months leading up to the burn fire breaks are established and potential dangers such as dead trees on the property line are mitigated. In the weeks before a burn, logistics begin to come together: resources needed, firing techniques used, preferred weather patterns, etc. And finally, it is a waiting game. When the correct weather conditions are anticipated, the execution of the burn takes place.
On average, WES burns roughly 1000 acres each year, mostly on banks located in the Southeast. Though not a panacea to habitat restoration, prescribed burning remains an extremely viable land management tool for Westervelt Ecological Services, and is one we will continue to use.