While it may not be rocket science, it is first rate science and sound planning that makes the use of fire as a management tool possible. Fire can create habitat results that better serve native plants and animals. Fire is not only efficient in creating circumstances for some plants and animals to survive and thrive, but sometimes it is the only way.
Virginia state parks use fire in some instances across the state with good results. Tim Shrader, Manager of Belle Isle State Park in Lancaster county reports that they “have been burning the fields at Belle Isle every two years to kill unwanted woody growth and remove thatch buildup. Bush hogging the fields would leave debris that would inhibit growth. The area is planted with plant species that is used by birds for cover and the plants’ seeds are a source of food. Small mammals like mice and rabbits use the habitat and they attract birds of prey such as hawks. The fields also attract pollinators important to nature’s natural processes such as bees, butterflies and other insects.”
Burning fields is very important for the survival of baby quail. The quail chicks are dependent on being able to walk between clumps of grass while searching for food, with the grass shielding them from predators from above. If the grasses are not burned on a regular interval, thatch builds up in between the grass plants, making it much more difficult for the chicks to move around!
The concept is not a new one. Historical accounts claim that when the Virginia Company first saw what they later named Virginia, they saw fields on fire and noted that Native Americans used fire. Of course nature was impacted by fire caused by lightening – long before fire stations were built to protect every community. So fire was what cleared the fields and created desirable habitat.
Shrader points out that trained and certified Virginia State Park fire experts design the fire plans that are used and they look at the fuel types, expected flame length, topography, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity among other things. They designate parameters to make predictions on fire behavior that produce an effective burn which can safely be controlled. Smoke control is also considered – wanting high altitude dispersal so it does not smoke in roads or private property areas.
The plan also determines how many staff members are needed and the number and types of equipment. At the Belle Isle burn, the plan requires a minimum of 6 staff and equipment including 2 pumper tanks in the back of pickup trucks, a gator with a small water tank and traditional hand tools like rakes and flappers.
If the conditions on any given day are not within approved parameters the fire is postponed or canceled. Safety is the primary concern.
The plan also calls for them to disk around the fields to turn up bare soil so that fire does not creep out of the prescribed area. Staff also bush hog the edge of the field so that tall grass or small trees do not fall over beyond the fire line and ignite fuel outside of the prescribed area. During the burn, crews on the fire line watch to make sure that there are not spot fires outside of the prescribed area and may “wet line,” or spray water on areas that may allow the fire to creep through.
To repeat, it may not be rocket science but it is serious science and planning that goes into preparation for a controlled burn. The results benefit nature and the plants, insects, mammals and birds that find these habitats essential to their existence.
In the final analysis – the results are also pretty to look at too!