Each spring and fall, local U.S. Forest Service rangers conduct prescribed burns on national forest land. Most recently, they ignited a 5,000 acre burn in Rockingham, Augusta, and Pendleton counties, straddling the Virginia - West Virginia border. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
Last Friday morning, a sleek yellow helicopter landed next to the Hone Quarry reservoir. In the distance, a hazy cloud of smoke began rising from the ridgeline.
The helicopter crew – forest service folks from Arkansas – was contracted to help out the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest rangers with a prescribed burn: a controlled use of fire that revitalizes the ecosystem and prevents out-of-control wildfires.
JASON PETERSON: So what we'll do with this is, ground forces up there are getting stuff ready on the fire lines, and they will light off the fire lines as our perimeter. And then we'll come in with the helicopter, and we can give them fire easier than they can walk through the ground.
Jason Peterson is a Forest Service helicopter manager from Arkansas.
PETERSON: When they're ready for us we'll come in and we'll start putting fire a little more interior, and then we can control the fire behavior a little bit with how far apart we put these ping pong balls, or our aerial ignition devices … they look like ping pong balls, so that's just kind of the term we use the most.
The 'ping pong' balls – and they do really look like that – each contain a granulated compound called potassium permanganate. Thousands of these balls are fed into a hopper mounted on the helicopter, which feeds them into a chamber where they are injected with just enough ethylene glycol to make them ignite in 30 seconds. By then, they've fallen to the forest floor, where they light the dead leaves and brush nearby.
This area of the forest was last treated with prescribed fire about 25 years ago.
ERIC FREELS: One of the primary reasons to do the prescribed fires are to create different age classes of the vegetation in the forest.
Eric Freels is the deputy district ranger for the North River Ranger District.
FREELS: There's a lot of older, mature, standing trees which are great, but we don't have a lot of that young age class – the young to middle age class – and there's a lot of species that depend on that and thrive on that kind of habitat.
On the first morning of a prescribed burn, ground crews will go around the perimeter of the identified area with drip torches. Picture a weed sprayer that's dripping little bits of fire from the end of the wand. This process is called blacklining, and it creates a sort of moat of material that's already been burned that will keep the fire contained within its borders. This past weekend, the ground crews were manned by Rockingham County Fire and Rescue and firefighters from as far as California and Oregon.
But getting ready for a burn starts well before the fire is lit.
FREELS: We've been prepping this one for over a year. And that includes like snagging it, making sure there's any hazards like that –
REPORTER: What is snagging?
FREELS: One of the potential dangers to firefighters when we're blacklining, or putting fire on the ground, is existing standing, dead trees. And that's a snag, right? And when those things get fire on them, sometimes that's all it takes for them to fall. And snags are one of the highest danger priorities for us on a fire line.
In much of the George Washington National Forest, prescribed burns are used specifically to open up the tree canopy. Meg Riddle is a wildlife biologist with the North River and Lee Ranger Districts.
MEG RIDDLE: If you've opened the canopy, you now have sunlight coming in, hitting the forest floor, and that helps for more diversity of plants to grow, and then of course wildlife are benefited by having more food and cover options.
One of the species that benefits is the wild turkey.
RIDDLE: They generally come right into a prescribed fire area just after we've burned and start picking around to find little roots and nuts and grubs, because all of that layer of the forest floor has been burned up and so now they can pick and get food easier. And they'll also put nests right down in where we've burned and raise their chicks there.
She explained that this practice long predates modern forestry techniques.
RIDDLE: It's been going on in this landscape since early, early times. Native Americans used it to manage the woods as well, to keep the woods open and to get those early successional plants growing, because they realized that it brought in wildlife. So this is just kind of a natural part of our ecosystem at this point. It's been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Some native species actually depend on fire to reproduce, like the pine tree species that fall under the umbrella of Southern Yellow Pines. Public Information Officer Genny Kotyk explains –
GENNY KOTYK: … a serotinous cone that Southern Yellow Pines have, it takes the heat from a fire for that resin between the bracts or parts of the cone, the resin melts and opens up and thenthose seeds are then available, and that's how those species have adapted over time, to fire … so those have fallen off the landscape a lot because we haven't had, we've been doing more fire prevention over the many years than letting it happen naturally or prescribed burns like these.
For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.