April Fires, Planned And Otherwise, Hit Allegheny Highlands
Warm Springs, VA – April was a busy time for wildfire and prescribed burns. A lightning storm in early April set off a string of wildfires in the area. That storm, coupled with debris burning on private lands, caused approximately 13 fires on National Forest lands. The largest fires were the Falling Rocks Fire in Nelson County at 750 acres, the 420 acre Fassifern Fire in Bath County. Several smaller fires burned in Alleghany, Rockbridge, Highland and Botetourt Counties.
All of the 5,600 acres of prescribed fire planned for the Warm Springs and James River Ranger Districts for spring 2010 were completed. Seven prescribed burn areas ranging from 26 to 2,400 acres were ignited by hand and helicopter in the March and April months. On April 13, the North Short Mountain burn created severe smoke issues in the Covington and Clifton Forge areas and beyond.
Transport winds were forecast to be out of the south. Instead, northerly winds developed midway through the burn carrying heavy smoke into the I-64 corridor. Outside of public and firefighter safety, smoke management is the number one concern when planning and conducting prescribed burns.
The 2010 burn objectives varied but included creating golden wing warbler habitat, improving overwinter habitat for small mammals, increasing forage and browse for large game, hazardous fuels reduction, and oak-hickory forest restoration. The conditions for prescribed fire are complex. Weather and fuel conditions must all be within prescribed ranges in order to conduct the burn. At a minimum, parameters include wind speeds and direction, temperature, relative humidity, mixing heights, transport winds, dry fuel moisture, live fuel moisture, soil moisture, and days since wetting rain.
When everything is within limits, a “burn window” exists and the prescribed fire can be implemented. While there may be smoke, it will likely be far less than that produced by an unwanted wildfire in an area where fire has not restored to the ecosystem. Consideration for human safety is the highest priority for these burns.
The Appalachian ecosystem has evolved with and is dependent on fire to remain healthy and to provide optimal habitat for a diversity of plants and animals. The oak-hickory forest is by far the most prevalent forest type in this part of the Appalachians and beyond. Fire-adapted species include the oak and hickory forest, grasses and shrubs.
Many common animal and plant species such as white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, squirrels, and eastern cottontails benefit from this habitat, as well as rarer species, including ruffed grouse, golden-wing warblers, grizzled skippers, and smooth coneflower. Without natural understory fires, oak seedlings in the understory are outcompeted for available light and food by more shade-loving species, like sugar maple, red maple, and beech. Without fire, over time, the oak-hickory forest will become a different forest, one dominated by maples, beeches, and other species which do not provide the wildlife habitat that many species depend on.