Prescribed Fire Used to Promote Native Grasses and Understand Effects of Fire and Deer Browsing on Oak Regeneration

Fireman using a driptorch as he walks through a controlled burn of grasses.
A wildland firefighter uses a driptorch to ignite the boundary of a prescribed fire at the Sandstone Visitor Center at New River Gorge National River on March 10, 2017.

Photo courtesy of Chris Jackson, The Register-Herald

Today’s wildland firefighters are practitioners of sound science. They rely on data gathered from research and past experience to make informed decisions when suppressing wildfires and conducting prescribed fires. Wildland Fire and Aviation firefighters in the Northeast Region (NER) are no different and they are starting the 2017 spring fire season off with a bang.

On March 10, before Snowmageddon Stella dumped a late winter blizzard on the Northeast, the region had experienced enough spring-like weather to open a window of opportunity for staff to conduct a successful prescribed fire at New River Gorge National River (NERI). The fire treatment was planned to kill encroaching woody shrubs surrounding the Sandstone Visitor Center to allow native grasses to flourish.

Once NERI Fire Management Officer John Fry realized weather parameters required by the park’s fire management plan were going to be present and the program had a good chance to meet the objectives identified in the burn plan, he organized the necessary personnel and equipment to conduct a successful operation. Non-fire staff from the park, along with the Beckley (West Virginia) Fire Department assisted NERI fire staff.

According to Fry, “The objective for this burn was to remove old vegetation and control encroachment of woody species into the open grassy areas. This burn was successful in achieving that.”

Additional coverage of the Sandstone project, to include photos and video, was provided by local area media outlets The Register-Herald and WOAY TV50.

Things ramped up quickly once the snow left by Stella melted. Just two weeks after the successful Sandstone prescribed fire, Fry and his NERI Wildland Fire and Aviation Program pulled off another successful prescribed burn.

The Grandview Xeric Oak Project has been at the top of the program’s priority list as it is part of a multi-year collaborative study in partnership with Penn State University. The project utilized a combination of deer exclosure fencing and prescribed fire to provide data on the effects that deer browsing and fire have on oak forest regeneration. The inventory and monitoring data that will be collected over a 20-year period will measure understory growth within the forest. The research will provide data to aid fire and resource management staff in the future as they work to return the forests to predominantly native oak trees.

The NERI staff weren’t alone in their efforts. Additional staff from Shenandoah National Park and Cuyahoga National Park assisted in controlling the fire. The joint operation resulted in a successful 38-acre prescribed burn that met the objectives set forth by park management in the burn plan and also met the requirements for the study. Hazardous fuels throughout the area such as leaf litter, dead trees, shrubs, and limbs that could lead to future fires that are hard to control or threaten safety were also reduced, thereby decreasing the threat of wildfire to the forest and local area.

NERI FMO Fry was ecstatic with the results of the March 24 burn. “The goal of this burn was to introduce low to moderate intensity prescribed fire to promote oak recruitment. After two years of planning, I am very pleased with this prescribed burn and the early results.”

Additional coverage of the Grandview project, to include photos, was provided by the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail.