Prescribed burns provide benefits to forest lands

Firefighters obscured by heat haze keep their eyes on the main body of a prescribed burn Friday at the beanfields in Irvine.

Fire is a destructive force, but, when handled properly, it can lead to renewed growth for desirable plants and improved habitat for animals.

This weekend, the Allegheny National Forest scheduled two prescribed burns — intentionally set and monitored fires.

On Friday, 22 primary and secondary ANF fire personnel, and visitors from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (four), and the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana (three), burned a little over 70 acres at the beanfields in Irvine.

That area is black now, but should be greening up in a week or so. “Come out in a week and it’ll look almost like we mowed it,” ANF Fire Management Officer John Fry said.

Prior to the burn, Burn Boss Craig Kostrzewski spoke with the team of about 30 people in a briefing and the Forestry Services Laboratory near Buckaloons Recreation Area.

An Allegheny National Forest firefighter walks through smoke during a prescribed burn Friday at the beanfields in Irvine.

“Some of these folks are primary duty,” Fry said. That means their first job is to fight fires.

Others were “collateral duty,” Fry said — fire is part of their job, but not the biggest part. “It’s great to have the supervisor’s permission to have them out here.”

Many of the firefighters have participated in prescribed burns and fighting wildfires for years or decades, but for others, it was their first fire experience.

The goal for Friday’s burn was three-fold, Kostrzewski said.

First was improving habitat, mostly for birds. “Anything that likes grass seed,” Engine Boss Joe Gomola said.

Times Observer photos by Brian Ferry An Allegheny National Forest firefighter drips fire ahead of the main body of a prescribed burn Friday at the beanfields in Irvine.

The warm season grasses at the beanfields are primarily big bluestem, little bluestem, and some switchgrass, Gomola said.

The grasses will grow right back. As a bonus, the fire knocked down some locust that was growing among the fields was not welcome. “This would out-compete everything,” Fry said. Other trees — there were some mature pines among the fields — will be browned, but will survive.

Second was fuels reduction. The dry, matted grasses burned fast and hot. It was better to have that burn take place under controlled conditions than for it to break out by surprise.

Burning fast wasn’t an accident. “We want to get as much lift as we can to get the smoke up and out of here,” Fry said. “Within an hour of us completing ignition, you won’t be able to see any smoke in the area.”

The extreme heat within the fire was evident as fire whirls — what some might call fire tornadoes – formed early in the burn.

The third goal was training. “Working with different folks and different training structures,” Kostrzewski said.

The area surrounding the burn was not expected to be susceptible to break-out fire. “If anything does get out, I’m not expecting any fire growth or intense fire behavior,” he said.

The team set a test fire at the very southern end of the beanfields at around noon.

When that fire behaved as expected, Kostrzewski set the team in motion.

Firefighters with drip torches outlined the areas to be burned — a small stretch at a time. When the winds were higher or some other concern required a little slower development, the lighters made dots of fire, instead of lines, Fry said.

Once a fire was started, it burned quickly. Not counting the test fire, the firefighters set four fires in four areas of the beanfields. They allowed each of those fires to burn out before starting the next.

Kostrzewski said it had been since 2015 since a prescribed burn was held at the beanfields. “Hopefully, we’ll get back on a three-to-four-year rotation here,” he said.

On Saturday, the crews will get back to work with a much larger burn — about 500 acres — in forested land at Izenbrown Corners, just south of the site of the Cobham Hill Wildfire that burned over 200 acres last year.


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