A Conservancy Fire Team member on the front lines of a burn.
In the Line of Fire A Conservancy Fire Team member on the front lines of a burn. © The Nature Conservancy/Jenny Case

Stories in Pennsylvania

Fire Management in Pennsylvania

Fire fuels the health and productivity of many Pennsylvania landscapes.

It seems counterintuitive to introduce something as destructive as fire into the natural world. But fire is part of nature, too. And Pennsylvania boasts several landscapes that, over millennia, have been shaped by fire.

In our more recent history, Native Americans routinely introduced fire into Pennsylvania's forests, barrens and grasslands and even 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. Fire suppression and the changing climate are now compromising the landscapes that need this natural disturbance the most.

A fire crew member burns the ground.
Controlled Burning A member of the Pennsylvania fire crew delivers fire to part of the surrounding landscape. © The Nature Conservancy/Pat McElhenny

Why We Burn

With more frequent and more intense western wildfires making headlines each year, managing forests—including with controlled burns that remove excess fuel and debris—is gaining attention in Pennsylvania and beyond.

“Prescribed fire serves as an efficient and effective way of limiting competition from faster growing, less beneficial species,” says Pat McElhenny, The Nature Conservancy’s director of stewardship in Pennsylvania. “Grasslands also benefit greatly from an annual application of fire, which reduces woody growth and encourages a variety of favorable forbs and pollinator plant species.”

A fire crew member carries a red torch of fire.
Fire Management A member of a TNC/USFS fire crew holds a drip torch during a controlled burn. © Mike Wilkinson

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 do not pose a threat to public safety.

Partnership In Action

TNC uses controlled burning as a key conservation strategy at several nature preserves, as well as at some publicly and privately managed lands in Pennsylvania. In these places, TNC works with partners to reintroduce fire in ways that mimic historic and naturally occurring patterns.

A fire crew member walks along tall grasses that are on fire.
Fire Management A member of the Pennsylvania fire crew conducts a prescribed burn in a grassland located at Fort Indiantown Gap. © The Nature Conservancy/Pat McElhenny

“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," says McElhenny.

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.

“We sought TNC’s leadership in developing plans and training crews and conducting burns in targeted locations that, as of 2019, added up to more than 44,000 acres statewide,” says Peter Sussenbach, bureau director of wildlife habitat management at PGC.

McElhenny adds, “Working with PGC has made it possible to pursue this work at a previously unimaginable scale and pace that neither organization could have achieved alone.”

Two members of a fire crew talk to each other.
Fire Crew A fire crew line boss confirms roles and responsibilities in advance of a controlled burn. © George C. Gress

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 McElhenny. “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.”