Working with Fire
Fire fuels the health and productivity of many Pennsylvania landscapes.
Fire is a natural part of the landscape. And Pennsylvania boasts several landscapes that, over millennia, have been shaped by fire.
Native Americans routinely introduced fire into Pennsylvania's forests, barrens, grasslands and wetlands out of an appreciation for this important ecological process. However, with European settlement came fire suppression. Now, naturally occurring fires have become rare in Pennsylvania landscapes that need this natural disturbance the most.
The Nature Conservancy uses controlled burning as a key conservation strategy at several nature preserves in PA as well as at some publicly and privately managed lands. In these places, TNC works with partners to reintroduce fire in ways that mimic historic and naturally occurring patterns.
Good Fire: Why We Burn
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.
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.
The specific pattern of fire—how frequently it burns, how hot it burns and during which season—dictates the types of plants and animals that will thrive in a given area. Using fire in the right places and at the right times can mitigate dry conditions and enhance healthy forests that attract diverse wildlife, support local livelihoods and help reduce threats to public safety.
A Prescription For Burning
TNC takes the use of fire as a conservation tool seriously. That is why staff working on TNC’s fire crews are required to pursue the same training as federal agencies. This consistency allows TNC to work with these agencies on controlled burns within the state and at wildfire emergencies across the nation.
Even before a fire crew arrives at a designated burn site, TNC conducts a comprehensive burn plan outlining everything required to conduct the burn safely. These plans also identify weather and fuel parameters necessary to meet ecological objectives. Sometimes they outline specific ways to communicate with the surrounding community.
“We carefully plan every controlled burn to ensure safety and achieve our ecological goals,” says Pat McElhenny, PA/DE chapter's director of stewardship. “We are fighting the threat to ecosystems and unique habitats, with controlled fire, to achieve TNC’s mission to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.”
2020's fire season got off to an early and productive start in February before shutting down in March due to Covid-19. Despite the challenges the chapter completed prescribed burns on 1,565 acres.
Trailblazers: Women in Fire
The land stewardship team at the PA/DE chapter is comprised predominantly of women, all of whom are certified to work on controlled burns. In the world of fire management, any given crew will have team members with a range of certifications and training, almost always led by a Burn Boss. Jennifer (Jenny) Case is the Burn Boss for the PA/DE Chapter.
Women comprise a mere 10 percent of the national wildland fire work force, and an even smaller percentage hold the title of Burn Boss. In addition to her formal role, Jenny has also become a mentor to the chapter’s entire stewardship team.
“The most rewarding thing about my work is the people I’ve met over the years. They give me hope in our humanity that there are dedicated people out there who keep trying against steep odds to make the world a better place."
Another woman in fire who's blazing career trails is Natasha Whetzel, conservation practitioner based in southern Delaware. “We should be promoting all forms of diversity in our workforce because with diversity comes different perspectives in decision-making and problem-solving, and a wider range of skills,” says Natasha.
Just before international travel was curtailed due to the pandemic, the PA/DE chapter sent three female staff to Belize to participate in a wildfire leadership training program. Thanks to ongoing investments in fire training like the program in Belize, TNC is supporting women like Natasha Whetzel, Elizabeth Hanson and Jenny Case who are demonstrating that careers in conservation are opportunities for men and women alike.
Partnership in Action
TNC pursues prescribed burning with partners who appreciate the value and positive outcomes that result from combining staff, training and equipment to implement this important conservation practice in places where it is needed the most.
For example, the mixed oak forests dominating half of Pennsylvania depend on fire even though it has been used sparingly on state lands. Since 2009, TNC has worked to build capacity for delivering controlled burns to improve the health and productivity of these forests in partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), which owns and manages 1.5 million acres throughout the state. More than 44,000 acres have been burned statewide as of 2019. Working in collaboration with PGC has made it possible to pursue this work at a previously unimaginable scale and pace that neither organization could have achieved alone.
In August 2020, TNC was awarded an FLN (Fire Learning Network) grant to help build the PA Bureau of State Parks' fire program. The grant paid for PA/DE Burn Boss Jenny Case’s time assisting the Bureau writing burn plans and teaching fire classes as well as overseeing burns at state parks.
And it's not just on public lands where fire has a role to play. Working with PGC, Penn State University Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Pennsylvania Prescribed Fire Council (PPFC) and DCNR Bureau of Forestry, TNC began developing a Private Landowner Prescribed Burn workshop, as well as a 16-hour technical training to certify NRCS staff to include fire in their management plans.