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ANF Using Fire As Forest Management Tool

Allegheny National Forest firefighter Jeff Sprovkin keeps his eyes on the green as a prescribed fire rages behind him Thursday at Jakes Rocks. Photo by Brian Ferry

WARREN, Pa. — The Allegheny National Forest is doing some forest management — with fire. On Thursday, officials intentionally created and managed a 247-acre fire in the Jakes Rocks area.

There are many reasons to use fire as a management tool on the forest.

“We are burning for habitat management, oak restoration, and general species diversity,” Duty Officer Craig Kostrzewski said.

The Allegheny hardwoods – beech, birch, maple and cherry — spend their energy growing upward. Oaks devote their energies in putting down strong root systems. The hardwoods will crowd out the oak without intervention.

Oaks are fire-adapted. An early-season fire will do much more damage to trees that spend their energy budding, leafing, and growing upward, than it will to oak. “They’re putting a lot of energy into that,” Kostrzewski said. “We hit them with fire and make them do it again.”

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife firefighter directs a comrade to douse a hot-spot up a hollow tree during a prescribed burn Thursday at Jakes Rocks. Photo by Brian Ferry

“We’re trying to use fire to push them back where they belong,” Kostrzewski said.

Oaks in areas treated with fire are healthier and better able to withstand threats from insects and disease.

Less than 20 percent of the Allegheny National Forest is oak ecosystem and Kostrzewski would like to see fire used on all of that area. “Our goal eventually is to manage that with fire,” he said.

There is also a cultural and historic element.

“This landscape was created by fire,” Kostrzewski said. “We’re doing what pre-contact Native Americans did to survive.”

A drip torch – a canister that pours a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline through a burning nozzle – drips fire onto fine fuels along the road at Jakes Rocks on Thursday during an Allegheny National Forest prescribed burn. Photo by Brian Ferry

“This was all land used by the Seneca and their predecessors,” he said. “There were many tribes that came through here that we still consult with.”

The presence of pitch pines in the area – a few along the road at Jakes Rocks — indicates regular and strong fires in the past. Those trees only reproduce when their cones fall on mineral soil. “Fire could probably have been set and race up the slope,” Kostrzewski said. The pitch pines “are an ecological sign that fire used to burn frequently and hot.”

The ANF prescribed burns will not burn down to mineral soil, he said. The pitch pines that are standing now are likely the last to grow here.

Because the lightning that would have caused natural fires was generally accompanied by rain and wet conditions, it is believed that fires were set by the people living in the area through the ages.

Fires — like the prescribed burn on Thursday — kill fast-growing species, giving oaks a chance to thrive.

It will create the right conditions for a good acorn crop, and for those acorns to get into the ground.

The vegetation killed by the fire will provide fertilizer for that which remains. “We’re recycling nutrients back into the soil,” Kostrzewski said.

The fire will knock back mountain laurel. “Mountain laurel will keep growing taller,” Kostrzewski said. “Fire keeps it in check.”

That, in turn, releases other species.

“Next year, the blueberries will be spectacular,” he said. “I would be surprised to see pink lady slippers pop up here in a few weeks.”

Burning isn’t just good for certain species of plants. “We’re creating basking areas for reptiles,” Kostrzewski said. “Foraging opportunities for birds and other species, new deer browse. Bear and turkey will return. We’ve seen turkey (return to burned areas) the day of a burn.”

The prescribed burn was scheduled for one day – but it will continue to burn. “We’ll come back and patrol tomorrow,” Kostrzewski said. Personnel will continue to monitor the site until there has been a soaking rain.

The Jakes Rocks area has been burned before. In 2012, a prescribed fire burned 160 acres and another 86 was burned in 2017. The conditions during those burns were different and Kostrzewski said analyzing and comparing the results allows the ANF to improve its fire results in the future.

“The more that we do this on the same plot of land, the better chance we have of knocking back those Allegheny hardwoods,” he said.

So far, there have been five prescribed burns on the ANF totaling over 1,000 acres this year. With conditions warming up and drying out, the burn window is closing.

Fire personnel can use the experience from a prescribed burn and use it in a less controlled environment. “We all go out west to fight fires,” Kostrzewski said. “We can take what we learn here and put it into practice on wildfire.”

New personnel are put in ‘holding positions’ on their first few fires, he said. After that, they join the crew that lights the ‘dots’. Crew members use drip torches containing a mixture of diesel and gasoline to put fire exactly where they want it. That creates a dot.

If burning conditions had been less favorable, crew members could have dripped fire in lines instead of dots. That would have created conditions that were unnecessarily hot on Thursday.

A ‘spot’ is a fire in a green zone — a bad thing. Firefighters who are observing the fire often turn their backs on it. That is to keep “eyes on the green” because they want to know immediately if any fire jumps their line and threatens to spread outside the prescribed area.

Some of the Trails at Jakes Rocks were closed on Thursday for the fire. But, forest personnel scheduled away from the weekend and the trail will be fully open Friday.

Kostrzewski said personnel would walk the trails to see if any obstructions had fallen. Anything that’s on the trails will be removed.

The ANF does not burn on its own — many agencies contribute in various ways.

When running a prescribed burn, officials always keep an eye on the sky.

They will call off a burn if conditions aren’t right. On top of knowing generally what to expect in terms of temperature, cloud cover, humidity, and winds, Kostrzewski said officials were checking the weather on a constant basis. In addition, the ANF asked the National Weather Service out of State College for a ‘spot forecast’ using a specific location in the burn area.

The ANF even provided some COVID-19 mitigation. Using smoke modeling, staff was able to anticipate where the smoke from the fire would go – allowing personnel to make decisions about how, when, and where to burn in order to prevent anyone who might be sensitive to smoky air.

On Thursday, ANF fire staff and fire militia — personnel who are trained to fight fires, but that is not their primary responsibility — joined with fire personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Maryland, New Jersey, and State College, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Bureau of Forestry on the controlled burn.

Working with the other agencies provides the ANF with the opportunity to burn. “If we didn’t have that collaboration, we wouldn’t be able to burn,” Kostrzewski said. “We work really well with the Bureau of Forestry and the local volunteer fire departments and the Emergency Management Agency.”

“We constantly try to make those relationships better,” he said.

“We’re ecstatic about the collaboration with the state personnel and Fish and Wildlife,” Burn Boss Robert Goulding said. “And our militia personnel have really stepped up this season.”

As of Thursday afternoon, conditions remained nearly ideal for the burn and the fire was doing just what officials had hoped.

“We’re getting good fire effects, good flame lengths and residence time,” Goulding said.

Good flames that don’t move too fast do a more thorough job of “killing the maples, killing the birch, and creating windows for more sunlight for the oaks,” he said.

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