Controlled burn in an oak-hickory forest at the Sideling Hill Creek preserve, the first burn conducted at this location.
Good Fire Controlled burn in an oak-hickory forest at the Sideling Hill Creek preserve, the first burn conducted at this location. © Gabriel Cahalan / TNC

Stories in Maryland/DC

Working With Fire

Using controlled burns to keep Maryland's forests and wetlands healthy.

GOOD FIRE

Keeping our forests healthy and connected requires diverse skills, experiences and partnerships. One of the most reliable ways to boost forest health is by reintroducing fire. 

Platanthera cristata has a rich yellow-orange hue and a short “tongue” with tassles spreading out below.
Crested Yellow Orchid Following the reintroduction of fire through controlled burns, plants that haven’t been seen in decades suddenly make an appearance. © Matt Kane / TNC

The benefits that fire can bring to a landscape are remarkably varied. Many species of plants and trees have evolved to be fire-adapted, and may not grow or disperse their seeds until after a forest has burned.  

Fire enhances a forest’s overall biodiversity, and by doing so makes it more resilient. When a stand of trees includes many different species rather than a few, they’re less likely to be wiped out by threats like pests or disease. And that resilience is crucial for the species and communities that depend on the services a forest provides.

Controlled burns are always conducted with safety as the top priority.  Burn staff are trained practitioners who monitor the weather leading up to and during a burn to ensure the fire remains at the desired intensity and smoke is carried up and away from roads and homes.  If the required conditions for temperature, humidity, moisture levels, cloud cover and wind are not met or they unexpectedly change, the burn will be postponed.

A LEAF intern holds up a tick sample gathered at Sideling Hill Creek Preserve as part of a study being conducted by Frostburg State biology professor Dr. Rebekah Taylor.
Sideling Hill Tick Study A LEAF intern holds up a tick sample gathered at Sideling Hill Creek Preserve as part of a study being conducted by Frostburg State biology professor Dr. Rebekah Taylor. © Bianca Bowman / TNC

As an additional benefit, controlled burns help remove the buildup of dry wood and organic matter on the forest floor, which reduces the chances of dangerous wildfires and their severity if they happen.  This also results in more open, spaced out forests that make it harder for destructive pests like pine beetles to kill trees across a massive range.

Research suggests that fire also reduces tick populations, including the Lyme disease-carrying deer tick. One study measuring tick populations and the presence of Lyme is currently being conducted on the Sideling Hill Creek burn sites by Frostburg University professor Rebekah Taylor.

Samples, or “cookies,” collected from trees are used to identify fire events within the growth rings.
Tree rings Samples, or “cookies,” collected from trees are used to identify fire events within the growth rings. © Matt Kane / TNC

Understanding Historic Fire Patterns

We know that fire is as natural and necessary as rain, but the more we understand about how and when fires occurred historically, the better we can replicate those natural events through safe controlled burns. 

To fill gaps in our knowledge after decades of fire suppression, TNC funded an Arcadia University study of fire scars preserved in the rings of “recorder trees” dating back as far as 1797.

The science of tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, tells us more about a tree than just its age. Tree rings present an intricate story of the climate and environment in which the tree grew each year of its life. And when we compare the story of one tree with the stories of dozens of others within a given landscape, a fuller, and sometimes smokier, picture emerges.

Fire professionals from TNC and other agencies gather in McHenry, MD for the 2019 Central Appalachians / Potomac Headwaters Fire Learning Network workshop.
Fire Learning Network Fire professionals from TNC and other agencies gather in McHenry, MD for the 2019 Central Appalachians / Potomac Headwaters Fire Learning Network workshop. © TNC

The Power of Partnership

Limited resources, including equipment and personnel, are often obstacles to implementing a successful fire program.  In 2016 we led the expansion of the Central Appalachian Fire Learning Network (FLN), a collaboration between TNC and multiple state and federal agencies.

We have partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to conduct burns across nearly 2,000 acres of woods and wetlands on Maryland's Eastern Shore since 2007.  Applying FLN's collaborative model successfully in western Maryland is a critical next step in keeping some of the state’s most valuable natural resources healthy and thriving.

By joining forces and pooling resources, we will dramatically scale up the size of our burns—and accelerate our progress toward the healthy forests of the future.

Wildfire suppression training, Deep River Forest Reserve, Belize.
Chase McLean Wildfire suppression training, Deep River Forest Reserve, Belize. © Fanny Tricone Photography

Fire Learning: Belize

TNC fire practitioners are skilled at conducting controlled burns, but don't often have opportunities to train for wildfire scenarios. 

© Copyright © 2017 Tony Rath Photography

In February 2019, Stewardship Field Assistant Chase McLean traveled to Belize for a TNC sponsored training focused on wildfire suppression.

The training, held at the 60,000 acre Deep River Forest Reserve, allowed participants to work at a scale that's not possible on TNC land and experience a diversity of fuel types, fuel configurations, and fire behavior.

During this training, Chase was able to complete his FFT1 Firefighter Type 1, or Squad Boss qualification task book and initiate his Single Resource Boss task book. These new qualifications will allow Chase to take on a greater leadership role in the chapter's prescribed fires and bring some of the skills and knowledge learned in Belize to Maryland's fire management program.