Fire has always been a part of the natural world and its influence has shaped the diversity of plants and animals across the globe. Pennsylvania and Delaware boast several landscapes that, over millennia, have been shaped by fire. Native Americans routinely introduced fire into the region’s forests, barrens, grasslands and wetlands out of an appreciation for the benefits of this important ecological process.
A century of suppressing naturally occurring fires has thrown our forests out of balance and caused an abundance of organic matter that has accumulated over many years. When wildfires occur in overgrown forests, they are larger and more intense, putting plants, animals, and human communities at risk.
The science is clear: controlled burns (also called prescribed burns) are a proven way to restore our forests. By managing the natural process of fire on the landscape instead of preventing it, we can improve habitats for native plants and animals and reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires.
The Nature Conservancy uses controlled burning as a key conservation strategy at several of our nature preserves in Pennsylvania and Delaware. Our fire crews regularly work with other TNC teams across state lines and our already notable network of public and private burn partners continues to grow. All prescribed burns are thoroughly planned and carried out by our trained experts. Weather conditions are monitored until the moment the fire is set to ensure the safest burn possible.
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. With natural wildfires suppressed for so long, rare plants and animals that depend on periodic fires could disappear. Fire management goals may include reducing invasive plants, eliminating woody encroachment into native grasses, keeping the forest floor open by reducing tree and sapling density and providing beneficial habitat for species such as grassland nesting songbirds and insects.
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.
Stephen Ruswick, a Land Steward & Fire Specialist based out of TNC’s Hauser Nature Center in northeast Pennsylvania, says fire is a valuable conservation and management tool.
“Forests and nature in Pennsylvania are changing and need our help,” he says. “There’s recognition that if we have a hands-off approach to our lands, then we will end up with a homogenous forest filled with the same few tree species, which doesn’t support much life or animal diversity and is prone to collapsing if those last species start to get killed by invasive pathogens.”
Delaware Stewardship Manager Natasha Whetzel says she’s particularly excited about the habitat improvements at Ponders Tract thanks to burning and tree thinning. She visited the site in the spring of 2023 with Delaware’s state botanist, Bill McAvoy, surveying the increased plant diversity.
“We didn’t find any rare plants during this visit, but Bill said the suite of species that we have growing together at Ponders is rare in Delaware, and that he’s never seen so much lyonia mariana [staggerbush] in one place. We both agreed our plant diversity is in the understory and that’s why sun and fire are critical to management.”
The prescribed fire community in Pennsylvania continues to grow with TNC as a known leader and trusted partner. The Prescribed Fire Council, which includes representation from 21 different organizations, is chaired by Jennifer (Jenny) Case, TNC’s Fire Manager in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
For the last two years, Case has been working with Pennsylvania-based staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to provide the technical training they need to build prescribed burns into land management plans developed for private landowners. We’ve also been working to train private contractors and landowners thanks to funding from an NRCS grant.
“It’s a really exciting time for prescribed fire in Pennsylvania,” Jenny explains. “For many years, we had to fight against perceptions that all fire was bad, but it seems like those attitudes are finally changing.”
TNC is also partnering with the Bureau of State Parks (BOSP) to build its staff’s capacity to use prescribed fire as a management tool. The BOSP owns and manages 125,000 acres within TNC’s focal landscapes for climate resilience and biodiversity in the Keystone State.
Implementing prescribed fires for BOSP includes developing burn plans, serving as burn boss and overseeing burn-day activities, pre-burn monitoring of weather conditions, and delivering post-burn reporting. Additionally, TNC will provide a drone and drone pilot to ignite one of the prescribed burns. This valuable tool significantly increases implementation efficiency and burn crew safety.
The collaboration between TNC and BOSP advanced significantly in 2022 when TNC planned and led a burn at Nescopeck State Park in Luzerne County. Both organizations are now looking to invest in future burns and training opportunities at Pennsylvania state parks in 2023.
Technology is increasingly a game changer for prescribed burns. Traditionally, burn crew members light fires using handheld drip torches, requiring staff to walk through the middle of a burn unit to get fire on the ground. This practice leaves crew members—who are wearing heavy equipment on their backs—exposed to hazards, especially in steep or dangerous terrain. It also limits how quickly the fire can be set.
With the IGNIS drone, burn crews are primarily responsible for burning and monitoring the perimeter of the burn unit, while the drone drops small incendiary spheres known as “dragon’s eggs,” which start the blaze. The drone is piloted by a specially trained member of the fire team who remains in coordination with the burn boss throughout its use.
Drones allow for more precision once a fire begins. Case recalls a prescribed burn at Ponders Tract in Delaware in 2022 where the smoke wasn’t rising off the ground and became a safety concern on a road adjacent to TNC’s property.
“I asked the drone operator to drop a few more of the dragon’s eggs in the unit to bring up the heat in order to lift the smoke,” says Jennie. “And within a matter of ten or fifteen minutes, the problem was being resolved and the smoke was lifting. We never would have been able to do that by hand so quickly and easily. The drone helps make our jobs a lot easier.”
Chase McLean of the TNC’s Maryland/DC chapter has been training Pennsylvania-based Ruswick on operating the ignition drone, which will allow for this technology to be put to use more frequently in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
“I think ignition drones are really going to revolutionize our ability to conduct prescribe fire: they are incredibly precise, quick, and safe,” Ruswick says. “Last year, I piloted the drone for the 150-acre burn on Dan’s Mountain in western Maryland, where there is some tricky topography. Without the drone, there are safety concerns for staff—for instance, if the wind switches direction or someone breaks a leg on a steep rocky slope, personnel could be in the fire’s path. Whereas the drone can do all of this from the sky about 10 to 20 times as fast as a group of five people.”
In the summer of 2022, Ruswick participated in a prescribed fire training called the Maine TREX (Training Exchange), where he was mentored by fire leaders from Florida, Oregon, and Rhode Island. He was training as an Engine Boss, which is the position in charge of a fire engine and several firefighters.
“While the training took place in Maine, I’ll be able to carry over much of the place-based knowledge to our similar ecosystems in Pennsylvania and Delaware,” Ruswick says. “Where I am in the Poconos, there is the unique Long Pond Barrens ecosystem that has many of the same benefits and challenges as those in the Wellsboro Barrens in Maine. Barrens ecosystems can produce intense fire behavior, so learning how to control this behavior or dealing with wind shifts or other complications prepares me for dealing with unexpected conditions regardless of where I am burning.”
Natasha Whetzel began her work in the field of prescribed fire in North Carolina in 2012. Thanks to her dedication, she spurred the return of fire to TNC’s lands in Delaware starting in 2017. Natasha continues on her path to become a certified burn boss, which requires tremendous amounts of training and experience in a variety of landscapes and conditions.
In August 2022, Natasha traveled with two other TNC fire staff to Hoopa, California, to work and train with the Hoopa Fire Department for ten days. Natasha needed experience with fighting wildfires to make progress on her burn boss certification, which she’s been working on for over a decade now.
“I was able to oversee the wildfire from its initial size up, directing the initial attack and calling in resources, calling in highway patrol to close roads, talking with a public information officer, getting the fire contained and mopped up until calling it in as controlled two days later,” she says.
Training exercises like these are a win-win for TNC fire staff needing wildfire experience and short-staffed local fire departments like Hoopa’s, Whetzel says.
Most recently, in February 2023, Whetzel was invited back as a coach and part of the cadre for TNC’s 2023 Wildfire Suppression Workshop in Big Falls, Belize. It marked the third time TNC has held this workshop in Belize.
Participants were split into three crews for the workshop and each crew had a coach. Whetzel was a coach for six people: three TNC fire staff, one from the Belize Maya Trust, one from the Belize Forest Department, and one from Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program.
“They were an amazing crew, awesome camaraderie, and all received a lot of great wildfire suppression experience in both leadership and followership positions,” Whetzel reports. “It was a privilege getting to work with and mentor them. Every fire is a learning opportunity.”
“I did all of this work to be able to manage our fire-adapted and dependent lands the way they should be managed,” Whetzel says. “Fire suppression has caused a lot of issues across the country and in different ways for different places. The natural disturbance regime our landscapes used to see for centuries was removed over the past 100+ years, and we are losing our plant diversity and native plant communities at an alarming rate.”
See for Yourself: Visit our Preserves
You can visit several of our preserves, where we conduct prescribed burns and see the various stages of regrowth for yourself. Our Ponders Tract at Pemberton Forest Preserve in southern Delaware was formerly a loblolly pine tree plantation that we’re restoring to a mixed hardwood forest. The preserve contains sections of forest that have been thinned and burned to reduce the unnaturally dense pine tree canopy and allow the native hardwoods to grow back.
“When I visited Ponders Tract in the spring of 2023, I was so happy to see and hear more birds than ever before,” says John Hinkson, Communications Manager for TNC in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “After thinning and prescribed burns, it’s a world of difference. It’s amazing to see plants that are returning that have been patiently waiting in the shade for many years, like a yellow-crested orchid that was observed growing there for the first time last year.”
In Pennsylvania, you can visit the Long Pond Barrens, where we have regularly conducted prescribed burns for several decades. The mesic till barrens found at the Long Pond Preserve developed over millennia because of somewhat frequent wildfires that prevented it from succeeding to mature forest.
With fire removed from the landscape for so long, more than 70% of the original habitat has transformed into fire-intolerant forest that does not support the rare species known to reside in the region’s mesic till barrens. That’s why we continue to partner with state and local officials to restore fire to public lands to help keep the remaining barrens healthy for future generations.
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