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Deborah Landau Reflects on Maryland's Burn Season

Maryland Prescribed Burns

See a prescribed fire in action and meet Deborah Landau.


It was the biggest burning season in Maryland’s history. Equipped with yellow fire-resistant suits and thick safety goggles, The Nature Conservancy in Maryland/DC conducted prescribed fires at three different preserves this spring for an impressive total of 240 acres burned.

Fire, like rain and sunshine, has been an important part of our environment for millions of years. The Conservancy works to restore the natural role of fire in our landscapes and to conserve the rich diversity of life on Earth.

The Conservancy’s Deborah Landau, a conservation ecologist, discusses how prescribed fires give nature a boost to rare communities across the state of Maryland.

"Our prescribed burns are really just putting fire back where it used to be. And once you do, it’s amazing to see how rapidly the native plants respond."
Deborah Landau, conservation ecologist in Maryland

What's your role at The Nature Conservancy?

Deborah Landau:

I work in ecological restoration for the Maryland/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Once the Conservancy purchases a tract of land, my job is to restore the land back to its historical composition. I’m essentially trying to put the land back to the way it was meant to be.

My team in Maryland has many different restoration projects — invasive species removal, planting native trees and reintroducing fire are just three examples. By reintroducing fire, we’re essentially trying to mimic ecological processes that used to happen naturally.

What are the top priorities for Maryland’s fire program?

Deborah Landau:

We have a long wish list of preserves where we’d like to burn but since we’re a small chapter with a relatively new fire program, we prioritize based on ecological importance. There are a few places in Maryland where rare plants and communities exist and fire is often a missing — and necessary — element for these habitats. Its places like those where we focus our fire restoration efforts.

I heard that the spring 2009 burn season was a big one for Maryland. Can you tell us more about it?

Deborah Landau:

It was the biggest! A typical burn season for us is 5-15 acres — this year we burned 240 acres at three different preserves: Dorchester Pond, Plum Creek and Nassawango Creek.

Can you tell us more about what you were hoping to accomplish at these preserves?

Deborah Landau:

The first two locations, Dorchester Pond and Plum Creek, were selected because they both have ecologically significant communities that need to remain protected. At Dorchester Pond, you’ll find rare coastal plain ponds, also known as Delmarva bays, which are seasonally flooded freshwater wetlands. And our Plum Creek preserve contains a xeric sand ridge, which is a fascinating and rare habitat remaining from sand dunes.

Next we burned at the Johnson tract at Nassawango Creek Preserve, an area that when purchased was planted so extensively with loblolly pine that it resembled a corn field with dizzying row after row of pine trees. In an effort to restore it back to a mixed native forest, we have been thinning the pines and now are burning away the thick layer of pine needles on the forest floor. Opening up the forest allows the remaining pines to grow faster while giving more desirable trees, like oak and hickory, the chance to grow.

We also did a clear cut burn at a really wet portion of Nassawango Creek where Atlantic white cedar, a fire adapted tree, is almost entirely gone. Taking out all the pines in this area allows the Atlantic white cedar and associated herbaceous species a chance to come back to life.

How many people does it take to conduct a burn?

Deborah Landau:

In previous years, we’ve typically only had two or three people on our burn crew. But this year I applied for a Landowner Incentive Program grant to pay for the services of a burn boss and three experienced burn crew members. They’re like nomadic fire superheroes, going out west in the summer to fight wildfires and then coming east to help with prescribed burns.

Safety is a primary factor to carefully control the burn. This year we were lucky enough to also have help from partners including Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It was great to see the Conservancy, the state and feds all collaborating to burn together on our preserves.

Sam Lindblom from the Virginia chapter also helped us as our fire manager, since we don’t have a dedicated person in MD. Sam leads a very successful burn program there, so it was a tremendous help to have his expertise.

What’s the most challenging aspect of doing a prescribed burn?

Deborah Landau:

There are so many questions that run through my head when planning a burn. Will the crew be available? Will they show up? Will the weather be okay? Will it be too windy? Too humid?

Then there is the safety issue to consider. When you stand in the middle of Nassawango Creek, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but once you look around, you realize there are so many things to be mindful of that are near the burn: airports, houses, roads, even chicken coops! It can be a challenge to perform a burn amongst all those obstacles.

What is it about fire for you — why is this work rewarding?

Deborah Landau:

There is so much evidence that shows what an important component fire is to a landscape, but there so few natural landscape level fires anymore. If lighting strikes, the fire hits a road or shopping mall and the fire department immediately puts it out. Our prescribed burns are really just putting fire back where it used to be. And once you do, it’s amazing to see how rapidly the native plants respond. To see restoration in action is truly instant gratification for me.

Deborah Landau has been the conservation ecologist for the MD/DC chapter of The Nature Conservancy since 2001, where she’s been working to restore the natural communities on our preserves.

Before her time with the Conservancy, Deborah worked for the World Bank on the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor. She received her undergraduate degree from Rutgers University in International Environmental Studies and went on to receive an M.S. in Entomology and Plant Pathology from the University of Tennessee, and her Ph.D. in Entomology and Plant Biology from Louisiana State University, where she studied the effect of fire on insect/plant interactions in longleaf pine savannas.

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