First Prescribed Burn of Forestland Managed by The Nature Conservancy in Delaware at Ponders Tract Preserve is a Success
Ellendale, DE | April 25, 2017
Sixteen forest firefighters from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Delaware Forest Service worked together to safely burn 110 acres of pine forest at the TNC’s Ponders Tract Preserve on Thursday, April 13, 2017. The prescribed burn will help maintain healthy and natural landscapes by keeping invasive species in check and natural areas from becoming overgrown. On a national level, The Nature Conservancy has been managing land through prescribed burns for more than 50 years but this was the first time the practice was applied to forestland by TNC in Delaware.
A prescribed burn, also known as a controlled burn, is a methodically planned and carefully managed forest fire that is intentionally set under controlled conditions. The controlled burn thins out dense brush and restores soils by recycling nutrients in the form of ashes. Prescribed burns also create open spaces in the woodland so sunlight can reach the ground and thus support a wider diversity of plants including grasses and wildflowers. These carefully managed burns can also help reduce the chance that unplanned wildfires would grow too hot and out of control, due to the buildup of excessive amounts of fuel in the form of dense brush and dead plant matter.
Land Steward Natasha Whetzel of The Nature Conservancy in Delaware said the successful prescribed burn was only possible thanks to the assistance of trained staff from The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina chapters as well as staff from the Delaware Forest Service. “The Nature Conservancy in Delaware wouldn’t have been able to conduct this burn without the man-power and equipment that was generously provided by our partners,” said Natasha. “We had been monitoring the weather for several weeks and we finally got the ideal conditions on Thursday. It’s exciting to be a part of our first burn in 13 years and we hope to put this natural land management practice to use again in the fall, or next spring.”
Staff members from several state chapters of The Nature Conservancy and the Delaware Forest Service facilitated with the prescribed burn at Ponders Tract on April 13, 2017. © Pam Sapko/The Nature Conservancy
The 110-acre area within the Ponders Tract Preserve that was burned was primarily Loblolly Pine forest, as the property had previously been a Loblolly Pine plantation before it came under the control of The Nature Conservancy in 2004. The forest is also home to additional tree species including Flowering Dogwood, American Holly, and Eastern Redcedar, among others. It is hoped that by allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor, a wider variety of trees will have the chance to grow in among the older, taller loblolly pines that dominate the burn area.
Careful planning ensures that the fire does not get out on control, with the most important determining factor being the weather. If it’s too humid then the fire won’t burn well; if it’s too windy then the fire could spread out of control. This prescribed burn was overseen by Patrick McElhenny, Pennsylvania and Delaware Fire Manager for The Nature Conservancy.
Crews began by establishing a perimeter—they ignited the burn using drip torches and then strategically burned small pockets of forest. After the flames burned through the underbrush, the crews raked the large piles of smoky embers and sprayed water along portions of the perimeter of the burn area. The day following the burn, Natasha Whetzel, TNC land steward, surveyed the area and checked on smoky hotspots again.
“When people think of forest fires, they often imagine 20 foot flames consuming the entire forest and leaving only ash in their wake,” said Natasha Whetzel. “A prescribed burn is highly controlled from beginning to end so, for the most part, the flames stayed at around 3 to 5 feet. In some areas where there was a lot of fuel the flames did reach 10 to 15 feet. However, the healthy trees remain alive even though they’re charred at their base, while the dense underbrush of mostly bayberry, blueberry and greenbrier is thinned out providing more room for plant diversity on the forest floor.”
Over the past hundred-plus years, fire suppression policies have removed nearly all fire from the landscape, preventing fire from conducting its natural role in helping to clear build-ups of thick brush and undergrowth that can lead to unnaturally intense and dangerous wildfires. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Native Americans used fire extensively to clear undergrowth to provide areas for planting crops and open hunting space. The Nature Conservancy in Delaware hopes to build on the success of this prescribed burn by safely and effectively conducting more controlled burns at this and other locations in the future.
Natasha Whetzel, land steward for The Nature Conservancy in Delaware, the day after the prescribed burn at Ponders Tract. © John Hinkson/The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.