Using Fire for Ecological Health
Who as a kid didn’t love to set things on fire and see them burn?
By Carlos Martínez RiveraApril 19, 2022
Fire has been closely linked to human evolution since our early days. Fire allowed prehistoric humans to consume more calories (devoted initially to more brain energy, not just fat rolls), store and use food for longer periods, scare predators away, and bring prey animals to them. Fire kept humans warm in the winter and still does. But more importantly, fire has help us alter the ecosystem to serve our immediate needs. Other organisms also use fire to their advantage; “fire hawks” in Australia toss embers from naturally occurring and human-made fires into grasslands to set new fires and scare prey away in order to more easily hunt them. Here in the Pinelands, pitch pine, with its serotinous cones, depends on fire to release the largest number of seeds possible and to literally wipe out the competition and eliminate invasive species. Meadows and grasslands also benefit from fire, and most temperate forests “regenerate” and “rejuvenate” after a fire.
However, by “taming” fire we have suppressed naturally occurring ones, causing too much biofuel (leaves, logs, dry vegetation) to accumulate which then causes much more destructive fires when an area does burn. Fire suppression has also changed the ecology of forests, especially pinelands, and grasslands around us by allowing invasive species to establish and preventing young trees and grasses to take a hold of their otherwise natural habitats. Fire suppression, along with warmer temperatures, drier weather and habitat changes caused by human activity, means that the risk of larger and more damaging wildfires that take whole forests and cities with them are becoming a global threat.
That’s why the New Jersey Forest Fire Service holds a yearly prescribed burning season from February to early April. During this time, they burn selected natural public and private areas where the native vegetation and surrounding areas would benefit from a controlled fire.
At PPA we manage around 17 acres of mixed native grasslands in our property between our PPA headquarters and Rancocas Creek farm. This habitat is a great haven for the local wildlife that is able to survive in an already altered ecosystem dominated by farmlands, roads, and rural development. Our grassland, a mix of more than 20 selected herbaceous plant species, provide food and shelter for pollinator insects, grassland and migrating birds, native mammals, and amphibians. Unfortunately, it’s also refuge for several invasive plants and animals. If left unchecked, together with some rapidly growing native trees, the whole grassland could turn into a very different and unproductive habitat in a couple of years.
So, a few weeks ago, on Saturday March 5 and with perfect weather and wind conditions, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service set our grasslands ablaze. The whole process took about two hours, with trained personnel, heavy equipment and fire trucks, and our grasslands were left charred and unrecognizable.
Now, well into spring, the fields are green as new growth and shoots are making a comeback and the natural succession of flowering plants begins to unfold. We are now in the process of determining the best way of eliminating a few invasive species left in the grassland. We will decide whether to reseed in the fall or not, if we should add more herbaceous species to our grassland, and plant additional trees on the edges. These would be protected from future prescribed burns and will provide early spring food for pollinators and provide perching for some bird species. If left untouched, our grasslands would come back within two years, reinvigorated and with less invasive plants.