The Conservancy and Forest Service reintroduced fire to Warm Springs Mountain in 2009.
By Daniel White
I’m waiting with the ground crew and small group of observers behind the terminal as a helicopter appears over the forest canopy and touches down on the tarmac. A grinning, fire-suited Sam Lindblom hops down and, as the craft powers down, shouts in our direction: “The fire’s going exactly according to plan!”
Surrounded by The Nature Conservancy’s Warm Springs Mountain Preserve and perched atop the ridgeline, Bath County’s Ingalls Field is reputedly the highest airport east of the Mississippi. We have a prime vantage point when, moments later, all eyes turn anxiously toward ominously darkening skies to our west. A line of thunderstorms is rumbling our way from West Virginia.
Sam has just returned from a recon flight. A few hundred feet beneath the rotors, a small infantry of Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service staff and contract crews are igniting and pushing a controlled burn along the perimeter of the Big Wilson Creek drainage.
I’m here on this March Thursday — a day forecast to be sunny and in the 70s — for day one of the Big Wilson Burn. Today’s goal is to burn the first 1,500 of 5,800 acres planned for the spring fire season.
Along for our kidney-crushing drive along the mountain’s 4-wheel-drive fire lanes are journalists from Roanoke and Richmond, a few observers, and Judy Dunscomb, our senior conservation scientist and interpreter for the day. Big Wilson offers a rare opportunity for outreach about the role of prescribed fire in habitat restoration, as the preserve’s Bear Loop Overlook will offer upper-deck views for the helicopter’s entrance into the arena.
At that point, Judy explains, the flight crew will drop incendiary “ping pong” balls to spread and accelerate the burn toward the finish line at Big Wilson Creek. But first, the ground crews have to advance far enough to create a safe blackened buffer. Even for that to happen, much less aerial ignition, the now-rising cold winds and spitting rains have to blow through.
The weather delay does provide ample opportunity to discuss a central question. Not many years removed from Smokey Bear’s ubiquitous slogan — “Only you can prevent forest fires!” — why on earth are the Conservancy and Forest Service so focused on setting forests on fire?
Smokey’s original message sprang from reasonable concerns. A carelessly tossed cigarette or untended campfire can lead to senseless destruction. Ironically, though, decades of fire suppression actually increased many risks.
Fire is a natural disturbance typically introduced via lightning. Forests will burn eventually, and where fuels have been allowed to build up, an otherwise low, slow burn can explode into an intense, rampaging wildfire.
The ecological consequences are serious, too, if not always apparent to untrained eyes. Here at Warm Springs Mountain, says Judy, just look to the forest floor. “You may see a lot of oaks, but you don't see any oak babies,” she explains. “We don't want to lose these species as a dominant canopy type. Oak is super important for wildlife food.”
As we huddle for warmth and dig into backpacks for sandwiches, a Forest Service truck arrives at Bear Loop and District Ranger Pat Sheridan joins our conversation.
“One thing fire does, it’ll create some holes in the canopy by burning some trees down, and more sunlight hits the ground,” Pat says. The forest will then produce a richer diversity of ages, species and food for wildlife, he adds.
Enhancing the habitat with fire would be next to impossible without teamwork. Big Wilson straddles a mid-slope boundary between national forest and Conservancy land that runs more than a dozen miles along the mountain.
“We manage it as a landscape together, so that’s one of the great advantages of working as partners and neighbors,” says Pat.
Finally, around 4:00 p.m., conditions improve enough to begin aerial ignition. The copter zig-zags through rising smoke as the flight crew drops incendiary balls along contours and ridgelines. In part, the patterns attempt to mimic how fire spills down a mountain following lightning strikes.
The ground crews work well into the night, patrolling fire lines, smothering hotspots and eating smoke.
When I catch up with Sam early the next week, he verifies that the fire burned slowly through the weekend. An inch-plus rainfall during the wee hours of Monday morning finally extinguished the smoking remnants.
“It was really a best-case scenario,” Sam says. “We had fire moving around those oak and pine systems, and that produces ecological work you can’t replicate.
“You’ve got these fire-adapted and, in some cases, fire-dependent systems that suffer in the absence of fire. We’re putting it back in there, so from that standpoint it was a grand-slam home run.”
Although weather delays meant the fire had to be stopped at a smaller tributary shy of Big Wilson Creek, the burn still progressed largely as hoped and covered at least a thousand of the most challenging acres.
The burn window extends well into April, and the team remains ready to mobilize on short notice. “Now that we’ve begun the Big Wilson Burn — the 5,800 acres — we consider it an active prescribed fire,” Sam adds. “We’ll try to burn the next section the next weather window we get.”
As I post this story online, I can see furious activity right outside my office window: the burn crew loading equipment, preparing to re-light Big Wilson tomorrow.
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Daniel White is a Conservancy senior writer based in Charlottesville and a correspondent for Passport to Nature.