On Monday, February 1st, 28 community members listened to a lecture on prescribed burning by Kate Sullivan titled: Prescribed Fire on Cape Cod: What, Why, Where & How. Prescribed burning is defined as intentionally igniting a fire to manipulate vegetation, in order to meet certain goals. Interestingly, pile burns are not considered prescribed burning as the goals of pile burns are not the same.
In a historical context, Native Americans purposefully set fires for multiple reasons, including to fireproof areas, fell trees and make it easier to hunt. Since there is such a long-standing incidence of fire on Cape Cod, the habitat of pitch pine and scrub oak is well adapted to fire. During the colonial era, settlers cleared fields with fire but didn’t use it for much else. This led to more intense and severe wildfires on the Cape, including a fire that anecdotally is said to have killed the largest flock of sheep at the time.
Currently, prescribed burns are used to meet a number of goals. One is decreasing the fuel hazard of the current forests. As litter and understory increases, wild fires have more fuel available to consume, leading to hotter and larger fires. As development continues on and around the Cape, the loss of property continues to rise. In Plymouth, a fire in 1957 consumed 19,000 acres – an area that is now filled with homes. Furthermore, fires create more ecological diversity by restarting succession, the natural change in habitat species composition. A fire restarts the ecological timeline of species, from pioneer field species, to shrubland and on to forests. Shrub dominated habitats are the most rapidly declining habitats in the United States. Decreased diversity in habitats means the fauna, birds, small mammals, and bugs that depend on those plants are less able to continue in our changing world. Prescribed burns are used to restore many types of habitats: scrub oak shrubland, sandplain heathland, sandplain grassland. Thankfully, on the Cape reducing fuel hazards and restoring habitats go hand in hand.
At the National Seashore there are many sites where prescribed burns are being used to meet their ecological and management goals. Some sites, like Pilgrim Spring and Fort Hill, are burned to begin recreating historical vistas. Others sites are burned to create habitat for species like little bluestem, quail and New England cottontail. At the Highland Center, prescribed burns help train firefighters to work in a wildland/urban interface.
There are many steps to go through in order to smartly and safely do a prescribed burn. First is the planning stage, where numerous factors about the area are considered. Plans go through many stages and officials, ensuring all laws and regulations are followed. Special consideration on Cape Cod is taken to ensure air quality is safe for those living around the area. Once the plan is deemed acceptable the site is prepared; this can include digging fire breaks or thinning vegetation. The next step is implementation. Before the burn goes forward weather and air quality information is checked to ensure conditions are right. Resources and the burn boss and crew are gathered at the site. A test fire is started to ensure the fire is acting in the way it was planned for. Fires are started with a drip torch. After the test fire is deemed acceptable, burn leaders assign crew members to ignite and others to be on the holding line. Ignition and holding lines are often decided on based on weather and property conditions. Finally, crew members mop up and monitor the site. Surprisingly little water is needed when burn conditions are correct.
Director Liz Migliore wrapped up by mentioning the prescribed burn that occurred at White’s Lane Conservation Area this past year. Further information can be found about this in the blog, on the White’s Lane Property Spotlight.