Middleford North Fire
Prescribed burn at the Hurley Tract of Middleford North © TNC

Stories in Delaware

First Ever Prescribed Burn at the Hurley Tract of Middleford North

The Nature Conservancy in Delaware conducted a prescribed burn on twenty acres of the Hurley Tract property of Middleford North Preserve in April 2018. Seven firefighters from The Nature Conservancy in Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were also joined by nine staff from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Mt. Cuba Center and Longwood Gardens. This prescribed burn marks the third time that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has used fire to manage its lands in Delaware and the first time at this site, located near Seaford.

 Land Steward Natasha Whetzel of The Nature Conservancy in Delaware said many people still perceive fire as only a harmful, damaging force; however, that perception is slowly changing. “More land managers are starting to use fire to maintain and enhance native landscapes but lack of training and resources can limit the use of prescribed burns,” says Whetzel. “Any chance we get to conduct a burn with staff from different organizations and agencies helps improve everyone’s skills. It’s a win-win for the land and the staff.”

TNC is managing 45-acres of the 171-acre tract as an early successional scrub-shrub habitat. This habitat type is important for numerous species, especially our declining shrubland-dependent birds including field sparrow, American woodcock, and Northern bobwhite.

A prescribed burn is a methodically planned and carefully managed forest fire that is intentionally set under controlled conditions. Prescribed burns thin out dense brush and restore soils by recycling nutrients in the form of ashes. These carefully managed burns can also help reduce the chance that unplanned wildfires grow too hot and out of control, due to the buildup of fuels in the form of dense brush and dead plant matter.

Vibrant Growth Returns After the Fire

Just a few short weeks after the prescribed burn at Middleford North’s Hurley Tract, native grasses and milkweed were growing vigorously in the area that had been managed with fire in early April.

Ten weeks after the prescribed burn, the native purple love grass has grown extensively throughout the burn site. This early successional scrub-shrub habitat, which is filled with grasses and wildflowers, is an important component of the food web. These meadows support a multitude of insect species that are essential for birds, especially when they are feeding their young. 

The open fields also create habitat for small mammals that serve as food for larger birds of prey, snakes and other mammals. The wildflowers and flowering grasses provide food in the form of pollen and nectar for pollinators like bees and butterflies. When the grasses go to seed they provide even more food for the birds and mice.

This material is based on work supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction grants program, which support efforts with the Chesapeake Bay watershed to accelerate nutrient and sediment reductions with innovative, sustainable, and cost-effective approaches, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under NFWF grant ID number 0603.17.057354, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.