Pillars of smoke could be seen reaching high into the sky from this week’s Pine Barrens fire, which burned about 1,000 acres of the Franklin Parker Preserve in Burlington County.
The blaze was not an accident, the result of a lightning strike, a cigarette tossed from a car window or a campfire gone awry. Rather, it was a “controlled burn,” or prescribed burn, performed under exacting conditions of temperature, humidity and wind by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, in cooperation with New Jersey Conservation Foundation. A similar controlled burn scorched 800 acres of the same preserve two weeks earlier.
While 1,800 acres of charred forest in a nature preserve may sound like an ecological catastrophe, it’s actually just the opposite. Fire is an essential ingredient in making and keeping the Pine Barrens what they have been for thousands of years.
“Many people tend to think of these fires as a destructive thing,” said Russell Juelg, NJ Conservation’s senior Pine Barrens land steward and educator. “Ecologists and others tend to look at it as a renewal force. It’s always surprising how fast the Pine Barrens bounces back from a hot fire.”
The Pine Barrens are dominated by pitch pine trees, which are uniquely suited to survive – and thrive - in fire conditions. Thick bark protects them from serious fire damage, and they are often able to generate new shoots right out of fire-blackened stumps.
Flames consume dry leaves, needles and twigs on the forest floor, while thinning the tree canopy overhead. Heat induces pitch pinecones to open and release their seeds. Seeds can reach the soil and germinate in the newly-available sunlight.
Hot fires kill more oak trees than pitch pines, helping maintain the Pine Barrens forest as a pine-dominated system. Without fires, the balance eventually tips toward oak trees, altering the character of the Pine Barrens and making habitats unsuitable for rare and characteristic species.
Shrub oaks, unlike larger tree-form oaks, are well adapted to fires. Shrub oak species like blackjack and scrub oaks have large, thick, tuberous root systems unaffected by fire. “It’s like a big, woody potato underground,” noted Russell. “It responds by putting out vigorous shoots.”
Pitch pine/scrub oak forests are globally rare habitats, and fires enhanced their value for all kinds of birds, including northern towhees, prairie warblers and a host of other species whose mid-Atlantic stronghold is in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
After a large, hot fire sweeps through the crowns of the pine trees, the result is some areas of open canopy, open understory, abundant sunlight on the forest floor, and richer soil due to ashes. This open habitat is a type of Pine Barrens savanna, and it’s perfect for a wide variety of native grasses and wildflowers.
Before New Jersey was settled by European colonists, lightning and probably Native Americans periodically ignited major fires that scorched large swaths of the Pine Barrens, creating and maintaining the savanna landscape.
Because so many people now live in and around the Pine Barrens, we’ve become skilled at controlling and preventing wildfires. Homes and human lives are better protected, but Pine Barrens savannah habitats have dwindled, leaving fewer species of savanna plants and the animals that depend on them – including redheaded woodpeckers, bluebirds, bobwhites, various moths, butterflies like the frosted elfin, and scores of rare wildflowers.
The two prescribed burns of the past month will bring back patches of savanna habitat while protecting villages like Chatsworth - surrounded by the Franklin Parker Preserve - from the hazard of wildfires.
“Only about 10 percent of pine trees will actually die,” predicted Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist. “But the extra patches of sunlight, fallen logs and bare sand will create critical habitat needed by rare populations that depend upon fires.”
The pines, ferns and huckleberries will re-sprout quickly. In a few months, it will be difficult for casual observers to notice that a hot fire occurred … unless they rub their hands on the charcoal-laden tree trunks!
The preserve is a fascinating place for botanists and researchers studying the effects of fire. One researcher, Steve Mason from Drexel University, is conducting a study of how insects respond to fires in the Pine Barrens. Dr. Nicholas Skowronski of the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station brought a team of international climate scientists to study the burn, including researchers from Germany, Venezuela and Great Britain.
Anyone interested in seeing how a Pine Barrens forest rebounds from fire is invited to visit the Franklin Parker Preserve this spring and summer. Most of the preserve’s trails go through the burned areas, and all are open.
Kudos to the New Jersey Forest Fire Service for their expertise in conducting the prescribed burns safely and effectively! To learn more about their work, visit http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/fire/.
For more information about the Franklin Parker Preserve, including trail maps, go to http://www.njconservation.org/franklinparkerpreserve.htm.
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