Frequently asked questions about the use of prescribed fire in the Desert Natural Area
A nationally important fire dependent community can be found in the Desert Natural Area
The Desert Natural Area (the Desert) is a 900 acre ecosystem complex within a larger area of over 4,000 acres of protected conservation lands. The sandy, nutrient poor soils found in parts of the Desert Natural Area support a pitch pine scrub oak (PPSO) community which is unusual for this region and among the most endangered ecosystems in the country. Many of the plant and animal species in this community are adapted to fire and dependent on occasional fire for their survival.
This unique habitat has declined both regionally and nationally over the last 50–100 years due in part to the suppression of the natural forest fires which serve to maintain the health of this fire dependent community. Given the significance of this PPSO community, Sudbury Valley Trustees and the City of Marlborough were awarded several grants from state and federal sources to restore PPSO habitat in the Desert. The restoration of the pitch pine scrub oak barrens is part of a larger plan for active stewardship of this property to conserve and enhance biological diversity and environmental health.
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- What is a prescribed fire?
- Why do we need to use fire?
- How will the fire and smoke be contained and controlled?
- What are the benefits of doing a prescribed burn in the Desert?
- What’s the plan?
- What about after the fire?
- What happens if the fire escapes?
- How will the fire boundaries be contained and controlled?
- Are the local fire departments involved?
- Who lives in the pitch pine scrub oak barrens?
- What is fire’s ecological role and the history of fire in the Desert?
- How large is the area which will be burned?
- Who will be doing the actual burn?
- Who else is involved?
- How will a prescribed burn affect the nearby cold water stream?
- How often will we need to burn?
- Do we have the resources to monitor and maintain the site after the burn?
- What about the gas pipeline which is located in the burn area?
- What about smoke from the fire?
- Has prescribed fire been used for habitat restoration of other MA conservation lands?
- How much of an increase in the current PPSO habitat can be anticipated after the restoration?
- Are there other advantages to using prescribed fire as a management tool?
- Sources for additional information
Prescribed fire is a controlled burn used in habitat management that is planned, ignited and managed by professional fire managers. It is one of the most effective tools for restoring healthy ecosystems while avoiding the environmental damage that can be caused by unplanned wildfire. The areas to be burned are studied before the burn; plant and animal surveys are completed for comparison with studies done after the fire. The first step in any prescribed burn is the development of a burn plan, also called a prescription, which describes not only site preparation and the exact conditions for the burn, but also includes a contingency plan for responding to an escape. A prescribed fire is only allowed under very specific conditions, including availability of resources, personnel and equipment, time of year and weather on the day of the burn.
Historically fire is a natural occurrence in Pine Barrens, and the community is fire adapted. Pitch pine, for example, has several adaptations due to its close association with areas experiencing frequent fire. Its thick bark protects the living tissue and buds from being damaged by fire. Fire actually stimulates the resurgence of young healthy vegetation. Scrub oak and huckleberry, for example, sprout readily from their root crowns. Certain plants will not germinate without being scorched by fire. The cones of some evergreen trees, like pitch pine, must be exposed to high temperatures to release their seeds. After years of lying dormant under layers of accumulated pine needles and forest debris, fire dependent native plant species are able to return after the fire. Thinning of the overstory also allows more sun to reach the seeds of these plants. In addition, fire creates ash which releases nutrients into the soil resulting in a lush growth of plants for a few years after the fire.
The use of prescribed fire in habitat restoration achieves a higher quality result than the use of mechanical means, such as mowing and cutting of trees, alone. The use of prescribed fire has the very important advantage of reducing the fuel load in the forest and therefore also reducing the risk of an uncontrolled wildfire. In addition to improving public and firefighter safety by reducing the chance of a wildfire, a controlled burn provides training opportunities for local fire departments in wildfire control.
Every burn plan describes the site preparation necessary to conduct a safe burn including location of fire breaks, roads and emergency crew access to the site. The conditions under which a burn will proceed are very specific in order to manage both the fire itself and the containment of smoke from the fire. On the day of the burn very specific weather conditions are required; therefore, it is often challenging to fire professionals to complete the prescribed burns each season. It is important to prevent smoke from entering residential areas and creating human respiratory problems.
In the Desert Natural Area there is a mixture of pitch pine and scrub oak in a mosaic with red maple swamps, cold water streams and associated wetlands. Some areas are relatively open woodland with tall pitch pine in the canopy and some areas have a dense and shrubby understory of scrub oak, huckleberry and blueberry bushes. This rich habitat mosaic supports fire dependent plant species and several rare animal species. About 30% of the plants and animals listed in the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act benefit from or depend upon these more open habitats created and maintained by fire. By conducting a prescribed burn we are helping to ensure that the pitch pine scrub oak forest community will survive in this location. The wild lupine, for example, which is still found in the Desert, is among these species. The caterpillars of some butterfly species, like the rare frosted elfin, feed on the wild lupine as the primary host plant. Many rare species of moth depend on PPSO habitat to survive especially those that feed almost exclusively on pitch pine and scrub oak. . The barrens buckmoth females, for example, lay their eggs on the twigs of scrub oak. The leaves of the blueberry bushes are an important food source for the caterpillars of the slender clearwing sphinx. Both the barrens buckmoth and the slender clearwing sphinx are state listed species of special concern.
Several species of birds including prairie warblers, eastern towhees, brown thrashers, American woodcock and eastern whip-poor-wills depend on the open canopy structure that PPSO habitats provide. Whip poor wills, found mostly in open woodlands and especially in PPSO habitats, were just recently listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts. There are other scrubland dependent species such as the New England cottontail, a candidate for federal listing, which would benefit from the dense scrub-oak thickets. These species have been in decline due to habitat loss. Without disturbances such as fire, the oak – white pine forest will slowly take over the pitch pine barrens and the community of plants and animals dependent on the more open pine barrens habitat will not survive.
The prescribed burn planned for the late summer of 2013 is just one aspect of Desert Natural Area management plan. Other goals include the control of invasive species throughout the Desert; maintenance of rare turtle habitat and habitats for migratory bird species; and maintenance of high quality cold water streams, vernal pools and upland habitats required by vernal pool breeding amphibians. A further goal of this project is to increase public awareness of biodiversity, responsible forest stewardship and habitat restoration and maintenance.
Since 2010, when teams of trained volunteers finished mapping invasive exotic plants throughout the Desert, there have been several invasive plant removal days. In certain areas it has been necessary to hire certified herbicide applicators to selectively treat invasive plants. Manual removal of invasive plants will be on-going by volunteers and will continue after the burn.
In the first phase, during the winter of 2012-2013, we will be clearing small trees and brush to prepare a 14.5 acre site located at the boundary between SVT and Marlborough lands on either side of the pipeline near trail intersection “E” for the prescribed burn. The actual burn will be conducted by highly trained burn professionals from multiple agencies including Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), MassWildlife, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Northeast Forest and Fire Management LLC, an independent company, has been retained to develop the prescribed burn plan for the project. This plan will then be reviewed by local fire departments, local conservation commissions and burn experts from Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (MNHESP). Local fire departments will be kept up to date and may opt to be involved with the burn itself. The burn boss has not yet been identified, but only highly qualified people serve as burn bosses and on the burn crew. These individuals undergo extensive coursework and active fire training.
Although the landscape may look dramatically different right after the fire, the post-fire recovery is usually very rapid. Within days of the fire, grasses and other herbaceous species will resprout from their roots. Seeds that have been stimulated by the heat will germinate, and all of the plant species will benefit from the ash, which contains recycled nutrients and will act as a fertilizer. After the fire, dormant buds of the pitch pine will produce sprouts of needles which grow directly out of the trunk and branches, allowing photosynthesis and cone production to continue. Pitch pine is the only conifer in the eastern U.S. that sprouts in this way.
Prescribed fires have a positive effect on most wildlife. Soon after a fire, turtles, moths and bluebirds are seen scurrying into the area to find food and new habitat. In most cases, because prescribed fires are relatively small and slow moving, many species can easily escape by moving to adjacent areas or burrowing underground. Smaller animals may take refuge in underground burrows or thick cover on the forest floor. Some animals, such as the slow moving turtles or snakes, may be killed during wildfires or prescribed burns but many turtles like the eastern box turtles survive fires by burrowing underground. Nestlings or young birds are most vulnerable to fire but burns are planned to avoid critical nesting times. However, the overall benefit to wildlife of habitat restoration far outweighs the loss of wildlife during a prescribed burn. Ironically, the absence of fire may well cause greater harm and loss of life in the long term.
The burn plan includes a contingency plan for responding to an escape and conditions under which an escape will be declared as wildfire. It includes a detailed description of who will be involved (who will be in charge for example) and how local and state resources will respond. In 25 years of prescribed fire in Massachusetts there has only been one escape and the crew applied the contingency plan and extinguished the fire prior to the arrival of any outside help. This was a 57 acre site and no injuries or property damages were sustained.
The burn plan describes the site preparation necessary to conduct a safe burn. This may include cutting firebreaks for equipment and crew access and describing features that can be used to contain a fire such as roads, trails and wetlands. Burn plans can only be drafted by qualified, trained personnel and are reviewed by one or more other qualified burn managers and planner. They are also reviewed by participating agencies such as DCR’s Bureau of Fire Control. A burn plan is a legal document and deviations from a plan’s “prescription” represent a serious liability for the burn manager and their agencies.
Both the Marlborough and Sudbury Fire Departments have been informed about this project.
In the Desert there is a mixture of pitch pine and scrub oak in a habitat mosaic of red maple swamps, cold water streams and associated wetlands. Some areas are relatively open woodland with tall pitch pine in the canopy and some areas have a dense and shrubby understory of scrub oak and blueberry bushes. This rich mosaic of habitats is home to several rare wildlife species. The wild lupine, which is still found in the Desert, is among these. Several species of caterpillars feed on the wild lupine, including the frosted elfin. In addition, many rare moth and butterfly species depend on PPSO habitat to survive since the caterpillar of these species often feed exclusively on pitch pine or scrub oak. The barrens buckmoth females, for example, lay their eggs on the twigs of scrub oak. The leaves of the blueberry bushes are an important food source for the caterpillars of the slender clearwing sphinx. Both the barrens buckmoth and the slender clearwing sphinx are state listed species of special concern.
Many birds including prairie warblers, eastern towhees, brown thrashers, American woodcock and eastern whip poor will depend on the open canopy structure that PPSO habitats provide. Whip poor wills, which have recently been listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts, are found mostly in open woodlands and especially in PPSO habitat. The fruit of the blueberry bush is an important food source for the eastern towhee. These species have been in decline due to habitat loss.
The New England Cottontail, a candidate for federal listing, relies on the dense shrubby undergrowth also found in this habitat to survive. The eastern box turtle, also a species of special concern, requires both uplands and wetlands found in the Desert. These turtles have been observed to burrow underground in the event of an approaching fire.
For years the Desert Natural Area’s pitch pine scrub oak barrens were maintained by fires set by Native Americans to improve forage and stimulate berry and acorn production, by early settlers to clear land and by sparks and debris from the railroad which runs through the property. More recently, illegal campfires which got out of control resulted in wildfires. Some sections of the pitch pine forest in the Desert last burned in the mid-1900’s, and while another section burned more recently, about 25 years ago, more frequent fire is necessary to maintain the health and biodiversity of the habitat. Pitch pine scrub oak barrens need to burn about every 7 – 15 years in order to remain healthy and support a diverse community of plants and animals. At this point the PPSO communities in the Desert are considered to be relict, or in decline, which means not only the loss of this unique habitat but also the loss of wildlife dependent on this habitat.
A 10 acre area which straddles land owned by SVT in Memorial Forest and City of Marlborough Conservation land in the Desert will be the site for this burn. This represents the initial phase. The entire area under consideration is approximately 80 acres but treatment of the remaining 70 acres is planned sometime after the results for the first phase are reviewed.
The burn will be conducted by highly trained burn professionals from multiple agencies including Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), MassWildlife, The Trustees of Reservations, the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Individual site plans include a complexity ranking which dictates the levels of crew training required, the type of equipment necessary and the conditions required to conduct a safe burn which meets the site objectives. Northeast Forest and Fire Management, an independent company, has been retained to develop the prescribed burn plan for the project. Burn plans can only be drafted by qualified, trained personnel and are reviewed by one or more other qualified burn managers and planners from agencies such as DCR’s Bureau of Fire Control. Local fire departments will also be kept up to date and may opt to be involved with the burn itself. The burn boss has not yet been identified but only highly qualified people serve as burn bosses and on the burn crew. These individuals complete extensive coursework and active fire training,
In 2009 a partnership was formed between the abutting conservation landowners to plan and manage this large natural area cooperatively. These landowners include the Sudbury Valley Trustees, City of Marlborough Conservation, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (Marlborough State Forest), Town of Sudbury Conservation, General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the southern unit of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. Tim Simmons, Restoration Ecologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, will be lending his expertise in restoration of fire dependent natural communities and will be conducting surveys of rare insects. Volunteers have been and will be involved in other aspects of this project including invasive plant monitoring and removal, and conducting some surveys.
Damage to the canopy can be tightly controlled and will be addressed in the burn plan. On gently sloping, sandy soils typical of these habitats, ash and runoff are very minor to nonexistent. Ash becomes absorbed by the soils during the first rainfall. Fuels that will accommodate a fire are not typical of the riparian areas so the fire will go out on its own when entering the shaded, moister conditions near the stream.
The area of the burn will be monitored to determine the optimum time interval for the next burn but the typical burn interval would be between 7 – 15 years for optimum results.
It is necessary to monitor the site after the burn and this has been factored into the funding for this project. For example, treatments to control a potential flush of invasive plant growth following the burn will most likely be conducted in order to give the desired native species a chance to get established. Conditions can sometimes be maintained with mechanical treatments though the results are less satisfactory in terms of germination and recruitment of target species. Any project of this scale faces challenges to maintain the resources required for future maintenance.
The pipeline is located under a non-vegetated area and so fire it would be impossible for a fire to burn directly over the line. The gas pipeline company will be notified and the site will be checked for leaks prior to the burn. Gas pipelines represent an easily surmountable challenge and don’t pose a serious risk.
Fire prescriptions are written so that prescribed fires will be ignited under conditions that maximize combustion efficiency and minimize smoke emissions. Specific conditions detailed in the burn plan ensure that smoke will not be an issue. In addition the site of the burn is relatively remote with respect to residences.
Yes, there are several sites which have used prescribed fire in habitat restoration and management including Myles Standish Forest in Plymouth (DCR land) and Weir Hill in North Andover (Trustees of Reservations land).
Currently this habitat is confined to only a few acres with ample evidence it was previously more extensive. A combination of treatments, mowing and burning, could result in >40 acres of quality habitat. Without management this target habitat will remain relict or disappear and will most likely be overcome with an oak white pine forest with resultant loss in biodiversity.
Yes. Prescribed fire serves to reduce the available fuel and reduce the risk of wildfire. This is a significant advantage since wildfires can threaten lives and cause signigicant property damage.