On a bright and blustery afternoon in mid-March, a plume of smoke rises over the farmland. After a few moments, the hillside crackles as a bright orange line of fire marches across it, consuming the dried, golden grass and leaving behind blackened earth. Nathan Shampine walks beside fire, monitoring what land managers call a prescribed burn, a practice wherein land managers use fire as a tool to keep a habitat healthy.
“The natural process of things in this region is that grasslands want to turn into forests,” said Shampine, Mt. Cuba Center’s Natural Lands Manager. “Without burning, or grazing, or mowing those grasslands to reset that clock, it will go to forest. So we mow or burn our grasslands to keep them as a grassland habitat.”
There are many reasons to use a prescribed burn to manage a habitat. For Shampine’s purposes here in the Delaware Piedmont, this fire helped remove nonnative grasses, and he plans to re-seed the area with native grasses. The fire also rejuvenates the field by removing the dead aboveground vegetation, called thatch, and returning nutrients to the soil. Fire can also remove unwanted plants whether they’re young, native trees or invasive shrubs — all important to maintain a healthy habitat.
“We want to maintain a diversity of landscapes,” Shampine said. “To support as many plants and insects as we can, we want some forest, some scrublands, some grasslands and meadows.” The rolling fields of the Brandywine Valley are also part of our cultural heritage. Maintaining the open spaces and grasslands made famous by Andrew Wyeth and other artists is another benefit of prescribed burns.
Fire: A Natural Tool
While it takes a crew of trained experts to pull off a prescribed fire today, the process mimics a naturally occurring phenomenon as old as the land itself.
“Lightning strikes or other combustion would happen on the landscape and things would burn naturally,” Shampine said. “Native Americans used to burn and clear land for agriculture, and to attract bison and deer.”
The alternatives to fire include spraying herbicide or mowing, both of which are time-consuming and not the most environmentally friendly option.
“When you’re mowing, you’re driving over the ground with the tractor, you’re compacting the soil,” Shampine said. “It leaves all that dead thatch behind, which isn’t good for the grass field. So the fire removes that thatch and those nutrients go back into the soil. It provides space for new growth to come through.”
It’s fast, too. A fire can remove grass and woody plant material from a site in under an hour, plus it’s natural, unlike mowing or spraying herbicides.
“Fire is more natural. If applied correctly, it’s more efficient,” said Jared Judy, the manager of Flint Woods Preserve. “To knock back the nonnative grasses without fire, [Shampine] would have had to spray herbicide in fall to kill the grass, mow and hay the thatch, then spray again in the spring. So instead of those three treatments, he was able to do just one with fire.”
Some plants actually require fire to spread seeds, or make room for new growth. “Prescribed burns are essential to maintaining some of the habitats that we have here,” Judy said. “We’re not doing it for fun.”
How It Works
Though it may be tempting, don’t go out and torch the front yard. Prescribed burns are performed by trained and certified individuals and require coordination and planning to be done safely. After much careful consideration, Shampine created a burn plan and received permission to burn from the state. Then he and his team had to wait for the right conditions.
“A burn plan goes through what you are doing and why. You can’t put fire on the ground just because you want to,” said James Dowd, a Conservation Technician for the state Forest Service and the assistant manager of Blackbird State Forest in Smyrna.
Burn crews take precautions to prevent fire from escaping the intended burn area. Firebreaks, or lines that the fire cannot cross like a mown path or stream, are established, and crews monitor the weather conditions carefully. If the day of the burn comes and the weather conditions aren’t within an acceptable range, the burn is called off.
“Safety is the responsibility of the burn boss–the one who puts the burn plan together,” Dowd said. “Can you safely complete your burn and meet your objectives under the current conditions? It’s a game of compromise. But you never compromise safety–the safety of the community and the burn crew.”
Open burning is banned in Delaware between May 1 and September 30, so prescribed burns take place from October through April. With renewed interest in this practice throughout the region, new collaborations between land managers have developed. You can expect to see this tool used more in the coming years.
This article originally appeared in the Thursday, March 23, 2017 edition of the News Journal.