ANF feelin’ the burn
Forest to increase prescribed fire
There could be a lot more fire on the Allegheny National Forest in the future, but not the kind people worry about.
Fire is a part of the life cycle of a forest.
Fire was used as a management technique locally long before the U.S. Forest Service had anything to do with it.
The Allegheny National Forest plans to increase its use of fire as a management technique in coming years.
“We’re reassessing our program,” Fuels Assistant Fire Management Officer Craig Kostrzewski said. “We want to be proactive in our management.”
In the 2007 Forest Plan, fire was not a focus. “We’ve learned more since then,” Kostrzewski said. “There is new science about the role of fire in ecosystems.”
He said the forest has been conducting prescribed burning on about 300 acres a year — usually in chunks of 50 to 150 acres.
A preliminary plan includes almost 10 times than in future years.
“2,500,” Kostrzewski said. “That’s the initial aim.”
And that could be more of a landscape scale change, with 250 to 500 contiguous acres involved in a burn. “It could be larger,” he said. “We let the landscape tell us.”
There are several positive roles fire can play on the forest and the U.S. Forest Service has set two national flagship targets — timber and fuels.
In this first part of a two-part series, four benefits of prescribed burns will be addressed.
“Fire can be a tool, along with logging, and site prep,” Kostrzewski said. “It assists with timber production by eliminating competing species.”
About 80,000 of the 500,000 acres of the forest are oak-hickory forest type, Kostrzewski said.
“Looking at the historical data, we know that we have the oak-hickory forests here because of fire… because of the Native American use of fire,” Kostrzewski said. “We need to continue that management style in order to retain, restore, and manage that habitat type.
Over time, shade-tolerant species — beech, birch, and maple — can squeeze out those desirable oaks and hickories.
Once that happens, oaks and hickories, which are not tolerant of shade, will not come back.
“The oaks need more sunlight,” Kostrzewski said. “At the beginning of their growth, they’re growing more into the ground, they’re developing more of their rootstock.”
“The Allegheny hardwoods, that seed falls to the ground and it’s spending a lot of its energy growing up,” he said. “They’re already changing some of our forest types.”
But, the shade-tolerant Allegheny hardwood species have thin bark that does not provide protection from fire.
Fire can be used to maintain the oak-hickory areas and expand their territory.
“There are some areas that are already converting from Allegheny hardwood to oak,” Kostrzewski said. “We would integrate those into the oak.”
As those areas become more healthy and vibrant, they are more resistant to forest pests like gypsy moth, he said.
Managing the oak-hickory forest is important because that forest type is important to the land of many uses.
“It’s important to industry,” he said. “It’s important to recreation.”
“It’s important to wildlife,” he said. “Different species rely on different forest types.”
“We burn for wildlife benefits,” Kostrzewski said. “Healthier forests produce more hard mast — acorns, hickory nuts. The healthier the trees in the forest the better the production of those food sources for wildlife.”
“We also have species that produce berries,” he said. “Those types of plants love fire.”
In some areas, the understory — shrubs and bushes — are preventing healthy forest conditions.
“We have thick areas of mountain laurel that have persisted because of the lack of fire,” Kostrzewski said. “Fire would keep the laurel and the shrub species in check.”
Prescribed burns eliminate understory material that would be the primary source of fuel in a wildfire.
Wildfire is not a major concern on the ANF, but it is possible.
“We do have conditions at times where we could have hazardous fuels,” Kostrzewski said. “We have steep slopes. We have interspersed oil and gas. We have some hamlets and some communities.”
“In 2016, up in the Poconos in northeastern PA, we had the 16-mile fire,” he said. “It was an 8,000-acre, arson started fire. It burned structures. It burned property.”
“It was in a similar fuel type,” Kostrzewski said. “We want to recognize the fact that we have similar fuel types, that we have the potential for that type of situation to arise here. We want to be proactive with our management.”
“We burn to reduce the fuels,” he said. “Research has shown throughout the county that if you have a wildfire burn into an area that was previously treated with fire, sometimes those fires just stop or they slow down so they can be controlled.”
When the ANF is conducting the burn, “We’re doing it in a controlled manner with predefined parameters,” Kostrzewski said. “We can also control the intensity and the severity.”
And, there are numerous fire personnel in place ready to handle changing conditions.
“We would shut a fire down if we’re out of prescription parameters… if we’re impacting the resource negatively… if we’re below a staffing level…” Kostrzewski said. “We can make it stop or we let it burn to a point that makes sense for safety.”
Knowing how to manage fire and practicing that knowledge is a benefit in itself.
Kostrzewski is one of the ANF’s burn bosses.
Classroom work only goes so far with fire management.
“We have two burn boss trainees,” he said. “They’re learning now to go out to a unit. Walk through the process of preparing a plan.”
“The fire line supervisors, the engine boss, they get training,” Kostrzewski said. “Some of the things that we do on a prescribed fire, we may do on a wildfire out west.”
There is after-action evaluation “A big part of what we do is, we want to know how did our fire do,” he said. “If we’re not successful, what can we do different.”
The training opportunities are available to cooperators. The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and the Pennsylvania Game Commission are some of the entities that can participate in prescribed burns.
“The Bureau of Forestry is increasing their statewide fire program,” he said. “The Pennsylvania Game Commission has stepped up their program statewide. We have several game commission inholdings.”
“It’s a prime opportunity to do this together,” he said.
The fire help build relationships with local firefighters, too.
“We’ve leaned on the volunteer fire departments and they’ve supported us,” Kostrzewski said.
Being able to practice on real fires has been “a great benefit,” he said.
“We also burn because it’s a part of our heritage,” Kostrzewski said.
Science has started to be able to show “pre-contact with European settlement, how much of the Allegheny was managed with fire by indigenous people,” Kostrzewski said. “On the Allegheny, the data has shown that on average, about 2,500 acres per year were managed by Native Americans.”
“They burned,” he said. “They’re a big reason that we have the forest types that we have.”
“The Seneca Nation supports us in the use of fire,” Kostrzewski said. “They utilized fire. They have told us several times, ‘We support you. We would like to see fire on the landscape.'”
“We’re going to look at that 2,500-acre pre-contact benchmark,” Kostrzewski said.
“Our goal isn’t to create black everywhere,” he said. “When we get to the landscape scale, our plan is to create a mosaic… to allow islands of green to exist within the black.”
Repeated treatment will be needed to create the desired results in some areas.
“Fire is a continuous process,” Kostrzewski said. “Areas need to be burned repetitively. In a lot of areas, fire needs to be combined with timber harvest.”
The green and black areas may flip. “Once we would eventually return to those areas, we would again want a mosaic,” Kostrzewski said. “Maybe some of those green areas would burn and some of the black areas would not.”
The Forest Service has encouraged more interdepartmental work on its forests.
“We have been talking,” Kostrzewski said. “Let’s talk more.”
“We might see an opportunity to do a burn in a certain area, but timber might say, ‘we have a sale coming up, let’s hold off,'” he said. “Or wildlife … ‘we’re trying to manage some species here, could you hold off for a year or two?'”
“I see more positive impacts of prescribed fire than negative,” Kostrzewski said.
Still, there are negatives, and “we know there is potential for people to be concerned.”
There will be smoke.
“It is a visual impact. The day of the burn and then some residual,” he said. “Our goal is to pick days when we’re going to get good lift of the smoke.”
“There’s a national air quality index… We burn only when the AQI is at 100 or less,” Kostrzewski said. “We’re mindful of public health conditions.”
There are also impacts on industry, recreation, and tourism.
“ATV, mountain bike, oil and gas… we recognize those uses,” Kostrzewski said.
He said burns can be conducted in areas that have trails and wells. “We have done so successfully.”
“We always work with the oil and gas producers,” he said. “Several times they’ve gone and shut down their production or their pipelines for us those days.”
“There might be some temporary trail and road closures,” he said. “We are planning to burn at Jakes Rocks this spring. We have already worked with the WCCBI and some of the mountain bike clubs to let them know so that people aren’t coming unknown that a management strategy is going to be going on.”
“We want to educate people,” he said. “We don’t just go out and burn.”
Oak-hickory and warm season grass areas are not the only possible prescribed burn sites on the forest. The ANF could use fire on just about any portion of the forest that it determined could benefit from it.
There are 16 different management types in the forest. Kostrzewski said the ANF can have prescribed burning on 13 of them
The ones where they cannot burn are: wilderness, wilderness study, and natural research area.
In case of a naturally-occurring fire in one of those areas, ANF personnel could manage that fire “if there was an approved plan.”
“We’re seeing some positive results with the limited amount of burning we’re doing now,” Kostrzewski said. “With new science, new research telling us that landscape scale burning is beneficial, we’re going to look at the 2,500 pre-contact number as a potential initial benchmark.”