Smoke on the mountain

Naturally or manmade, fires will happen.On a recent wander through a portion of Michaux State Forest, I found the road winding around a large parcel of blackened ground and trees. The question arose what good the burn, clearly a controlled burn of which I had read, would do for the wildlife that lived there. So I asked Fire Forester Philip Bietsch to explain the process.

For years I have read that fire is Mother Nature’s cleanup tool. Periodically, she shoots a bolt of lightning into the tinder and sets it alight. The resulting blaze turns dead brush and grass to ash. Some creatures leave the area, at least temporarily, while others find niches in which to hide and wait out the fire.

Native Americans apparently noticed, and were known to set fires to improve blueberry and huckleberry production.

Then along came our more direct ancestors. They built large towns, and expensive homes along waterways and ponds and surrounded by forest — at least what they did not cut down for ships masts and homes. Even in the South Mountain

Still, periodic fires would clean the forest floor, and old and dying trees that blocked sunlight from the decaying duff. It turns out researchers can look at the rings in tree stumps and tell not only how old the tree was but which years it was subjected to fire. Data gained from South Mountain area trees showed that natural fires occurred every 5-to-10 years. In some grassy areas, fire was an annual event.

According to Bietsch, the South Mountain area has not experienced a major forest fire in nearly a century. Coincidentally, since the early 1900s, Pennsylvania foresters have been charged with suppressing forest fires. We generally do not like fire in our forests. We want to live there, and build expensive homes surrounded by trees and wildlife, but we tell Mother Nature she may not do what she has done since there were forests — periodically burn them clean, removing fuel that, if left to collect, can feed much larger fires.

Smokey Bear has done a super job of reducing forest fires. Now they are far fewer and, left to their own direction, much more intense. Hence the need for controlled burns, in which specially trained foresters deliberately set fires to keep them small. They mow grasslands, and cut away shrubs to set limits on fire’s burn direction. Sometimes they drop ping-pong ball incendiary devices from helicopters to start fires and shape burn areas.

Bietsch said contrary to some movies depicting animals en masse running away from, critters have learned to avoid burning areas. Foresters in helicopters have watched as deer “run around back – it’s a temporary displacement” to wait for the fire to burn out. Primary burn season is early March to mid-May, when turkeys are nesting, but the birds – which ironically were once made nearly extinct from human lumbering, farming and market shooting – simply make new nests when early ones are burned.

The 1,400-acre burn, created from a series of smaller fires, I drove around has started to grow back. Often within a day, oak sprouts – favored salad makings for White-tail Deer – and other greenery have started to poke out of the seeming destruction. Grouse and turkey populations immediately begin to rebuild.

“These animals evolved with fire,” Bietsch said. “Within a day or so, they’re back in there.”

It’s a trade, he said – some apparent habitat destruction for a healthier forest and safer human habitat – a trade apparently worth making.

One can see the alternative on the evening news, as huge swaths of western forests ignite and wipe out whole towns.

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