Assateague Island ponies appear to ignore the prescribed burning of the highly invasive reed, phragmites. NPS photo.
Northeast & National Capital Regions
Context is important. Fires tend to be very visible in this part of the country. Even when a planned 25-acre burn to preserve a historic scene goes well it can be a top news story. Welcome to the Northeast and National Capital Regions.
National Park Service sites in 13-states from just below the Mason-Dixon Line north to the U.S. border with Canada comprise the Northeast Region. The states are: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. NPS sites in Washington D.C. and surrounding states (VA, WV, and MD) make up the National Capital Region.
When the Landscape Tends to Burn
Under the right conditions, anything can burn at any time. In the northeast corner of the country there are two times of year that landscapes are more likely to catch fire. Except in periods of extreme drought, summer fires are uncommon. The primary "fire season" is actually late winter through early spring. Most plant moisture is below ground; wind and increasing daylight dry accumulated plant litter quickly. Until marshes and fields green up and trees leaf out, fire danger can be very high. There is also often a secondary season in the late fall, after the leaves hit the ground and before the snow starts to fly.
Surprise! Summer isn't the primary fire season in the northeast.
Summer isn't the primary fire season in the northeast. Give a big thanks to modern mass media if you've been confused. Curious about the whens and whats of wildland fire risks in your area? Try an internet search for your state's department of forestry or conservation. Want to know more about protecting your home from the risks of wildland fire, check out the Firewise website.
"Fire season" may also be defined with specific dates by agencies for legal reasons. For instance, many states have restrictions on open burning at certain times of the year. Localities may impose additional restrictions, often also by date. Keep in mind, however, that even if it's before or after a legal "fire season," your neighborhood could be more likely to burn than not. Under the right conditions, especially in drought years, there can be fire almost any time. Alternatively, well-timed rains or snows can make fire season a fleeting event some years.
The Wildland Fire Management Program
Fires happen. Usually humans start them, but lightning does, too. The National Park Service must be ready to safely deal with them. With additional planning, we also use fire to care for park resources, including historic landscapes and plant communities. And, we keep learning to do all this work better and better.
Individual health and safety is the cornerstone of all firefighting. People involved in the work must get fit and stay fit, mentally and physically. They must develop and maintain key skills, including teamwork and leadership. The Northeast and National Capital Regions train firefighters and managers and help to provide training for other agencies who respond to wildfires.
Fire can be used effectively to restore, preserve or enhance landscapes, both natural and cultural. Hazardous fuels may be reduced by prescribed or, "controlled," burning. Vegetation can also be removed by hand and mechanically to reduce risks from fire for the park and its neighbors. For an in-depth look at a multi-year project at Cape Cod National Seashore, read this PDF. Here are some other examples:
At Richmond National Battlefield Park fire was used on both Confederate and Union earthworks to help preserve them.
Firefighter Beverly Haywood watches to make sure the fire stays where it's supposed to stay. When it's done and the smoke clears, the burn will improve the view at Beahms Gap overlook in Shenandoah National Park. NPS photo.
Prescribed Burn Boss Trainee Justin DeForest supervises NPS firefighters and New York State Rangers during a prescribed fire at Saratoga National Historical Park in New York, April 15, 2009. NPS photo.
Living with Fire
Fires happen. Keeping people alive and well and their property intact is important. Being good stewards of the parks is also important. The challenges are only increasing, including more people living close to public lands and tightening personal and governmental budgets. Together, however, wildland fire specialists, structural fire specialists and homeowners can help protect what we value. Putting to work what we learn makes a difference.