Did you know there’s a camp where teens get to fight fire? Not a scary western wildfire, but a well-behaved one that actually improves the environment?
Last summer, a group of teenagers at Camp Woods & Wildlife learned firsthand how to manage a prescribed fire. These intrepid campers donned fire-retardant gear and set about preparing for a small understory burn.
First, they raked a fire line down to bare soil to keep the fire contained. Then, under the watchful eyes of Virginia Department of Forestry personnel, they used a drip torch to light the forest duff. The June humidity kept the fire low, but campers were prepared with backpack tanks in case of any flare-ups.
The campers learned that managed fire cuts down the amount of dry “fuel” on the forest floor, thus reducing the chances of an uncontrolled wildfire later. Many mature trees are tolerant of low-intensity prescribed fire, and they benefit from reduced competition when the fire kills smaller woody vegetation. Fire can even improve wildlife habitat by creating growing conditions for plants that provide food and cover.
Teens who want to experience real-world environmental practices like prescribed fire are invited to attend this year’s Camp Woods & Wildlife, scheduled for June 22-27, 2020 at Holiday Lake 4-H Center. The camp is open to any Virginia resident aged 13-16 with an interest in natural resources who has not attended before. Any non-related adult can nominate a camper.
“A prescribed fire is like a wildfire that happens backwards – meaning, the fire practitioners are able to assess the site, plan for weather, install firebreaks and assemble the necessary crew and equipment, all in advance, before any fire is on the ground. Once the burn plan has been written and the equipment is ready, there is nothing to do except wait for the right weather.” said area forester Sarah Parmelee.
Weather is critical to prescribed fire because it effects how the fuels will burn and where the smoke from the fire will go. Weather that’s best for conducting a prescribed burn consists of moderate humidity and surface winds that will allow the fuels to burn without getting out of hand.
Sarah said, “You need a certain atmosphere to support a safe, effective prescribed burn. During the day, weather should allow smoke to rise and dissipate. A cool, humid ‘recovery’ period during the night will reduce the risk of the fire rekindling. Days in late winter or early spring are typically ideal for prescribed burns because the days can be relatively warm and dry with favorable winds and atmosphere, while the nights are still quite cool and moist.”
On January 22, VDOF staff determined that the weather was favorable to burn the Field but not the Shortleaf (pine) unit. Because the Field is composed largely of native warm season grasses, it could be burned on a day with higher relative humidity, lower winds and cooler temperatures than the Shortleaf stand, which has some grasses but more woody and brushy materials.
“VDOF has many prescribed burns planned this spring on private and state owned land, so even though the weather on the 22 was not appropriate for both units, the decision was made to burn the Field and return to burn the Shortleaf at a later date.” said Sarah.
The morning of the fire, the burn crew gathered at the Warrenton office to assemble materials, such as drip torch fuel (a mixture of diesel and gasoline), drip torches, flappers (a suppression tool that is like a mudflap on a mop handle), leaf blowers and water.
Two brush trucks with water and off-road capabilities would be on site during the fire, but due to the near-freezing temperatures, water was not the preferred method of control and suppression. The VDOF bulldozer was also prepared for the fire; the bulldozer is not always necessary to have on standby for prescribed fires, but there were several snags (dead standing trees) both in and adjacent to the Field that might catch fire and need to be pushed over. Because the bulldozer would be on site, the operator could also contain any escaped fire if the cold temperature did prevent the use of the water resources.
Once the preparations were made, the crew convoyed to the Whitney State Forest. The suppression equipment was staged where it could be readily used, but not at risk of being in the way of other equipment or the fire. Warrenton Fire Department provided an attack engine (a brush truck with additional equipment and water) to standby on scene. At 11:00 AM the weather was predicted to be ideal for the fire, so at 10:45, the crew gathered for a final briefing covering safety, weather, assignments and methods for conducting the fire. Per VDOF policy, all fire practitioners were wearing the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This includes nomex clothes, helmets, gloves, goggles or safety glasses and, most importantly, a fire shelter to use only in extreme emergencies.
A small test fire was lit to see how the fuels (i.e. the grasses) would burn and help determine the strategy of the Ignitions Crew for the burn. The Ignitions Crew would be responsible for lighting the fire while the Holding Crew would be responsible for keeping the fire within the unit. The Incident Commander (IC – the person in charge of the whole operation) would float between the two teams and act as a lookout.
The cooler weather meant that the ignitions boss could use three lighters (people with driptorches putting fire on the ground) at once in order to build enough heat for the fuels to burn. The ignitions boss and IC had determined that “strip-head fire” would be the appropriate ignitions pattern. Head fire is when fire runs with the wind and can be very hot, fast and difficult to control. In a strip-head patter, lighters light strips of head fire parallel to each other so that no one head fire can travel very far before reaching “the black” – a burnt area where the fuels have been consumed. The black is an important tool for fire practitioners because it acts as an additional fire break.
The crew started at the downwind side of the Field so that as they burned, they “blacked out” the most vulnerable (downwind) fire break, making it more secure. They were then able to strip fire back through the Field until all the fuels had been consumed.
The burn progressed without escape and was completed in roughly an hour. While the ignitions crew was lighting, the holding crew patrolled the fire breaks to make sure that the fire was not in danger of escaping. After ignitions were complete, the holding crew and IC patrolled the fire breaks and extinguished any smoking debris with dirt.
Following the burn, Sarah reported, “Even though fuel consumption was spotty in places, the overall effect of the fire was satisfactory. It is worth noting that some patchiness in fuel consumption is not bad and increases the diversity of the site. Patchiness in winter burns also provides habitat for wildlife until the grasses in the field grow back in the spring.”
The Whitney State Forest remained closed for the rest of the afternoon and the Field was patrolled the next morning for any hotspots, of which there were none.
VDOF anticipates burning the Shortleaf unit in late winter or early spring, during which the Whitney State Forest will again be closed for the day until it is safe for the public to return.
VDOF foresters are lending a hand to locate foster moms for orphaned bear cubs in Virginia.
VDOF’s sister agency Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) recently reached out with a request for help identifying black bear dens on forestland throughout the state.
DGIF biologists have received a number of calls about bear cubs that have been separated from their mother— “well beyond what we normally see at this time,” says DGIF black bear project leader Stephanie Simek.
Female black bears in Virginia will typically give birth to cubs between January and mid-February while still in their winter dens. The newborn cubs are very small and fully reliant on the sow (mother bear). At this time of year, sows with cubs may occasionally be disturbed by humans, which can result in orphaned cubs, Stephanie explains.
Sows with newborn cubs of their own may accept the cubs placed near their den entrance. DGIF biologists have identified a few radio-collared female bears that may act as fosters; however, the department would like to expand their options and are reaching out to partners for assistance.
This is where VDOF forestry staff can help the DGIF team; because our foresters and technicians spend significant time in the field, they are ideal candidates to lend assistance in locating bear dens, which may include hollow trees or brush piles.
Although VDOF staff won’t be in the field looking specifically for dens, if there is a known den on a landowner’s property, or if the foresters encounter an active den while conducting their normal duties, they can communicate this information to the DGIF team.
By providing information about active den sites, VDOF foresters can help DGIF biologists connect healthy cubs with a new, wild family.
Featured photo at top of page is courtesy of DGIF.
Daffodils, Narcissus spp., are always a welcome sight — they are nature’s colorful announcement that spring is near!
When we encounter daffodils in the middle of the woods, they are often a sign of an abandoned homestead. In the photos below, the flowers appear to surround an old shed or well (left), and these blooms near an old brick foundation (right) have thrived under 70 years of forest canopy cover.
While daffodil sightings like these are common throughout Virginia, in Gloucester and Mathews Counties we find entire fields, patches of forest and roadsides carpeted in daffodils. And for a period of several weeks, numerous varieties bloom throughout the area.
What began in the 1600s as an import by English settlers creating new homes and gardens, bloomed into an agricultural crop for the Middle Peninsula of Virginia by the early 1900s. Gloucester and Mathews Counties soon became known as the “Daffodil Capital of America.” At that time, more than 150 families were producing daffodils on 1,000 acres.
This heritage of daffodil farming has been celebrated by a Daffodil Show since 1938, and also with an annual Daffodil Festival since 1987. The industry began to decline when air freight transformed the cut flower market, but daffodils still abound throughout the Middle Peninsula. Many local residents remember time spent in the fields harvesting flowers and bulbs, and some owners of daffodil fields still set up roadside stands to sell cut blooms.
For many of us who work in the natural resources arena, it is a joy to see school buses arrive for an outdoor field trip.
Throughout the state, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff partner with many school divisions and local, state and federal natural resource agencies to provide elements of meaningful watershed educational experiences, also called MWEEs, for students.
It is especially nice when schools are brave enough to chance a little bit of rain, as opposed to cancelling a field trip. Sometimes overcast weather can provide better opportunities for viewing wildlife in action.
During a bit of early cold weather, Gloucester County students encountered a few frogs along a nature trail, and we watched them hop away. However, when we came across an American Bullfrog close to the water’s edge, it refused to budge. I don’t know if the frog was too cold to move or if it decided that staying frozen in place and camouflaged was the best strategy – or a combination of both. It was facing a line of 25 large predators, and all eyes were on the frog. When I touched the bullfrog’s back with a fern, it surprised us by staying put and puffing its body up to be as large as it could.
When I returned to the same spot on the trail about 10 minutes later, the bullfrog had moved a few feet closer to the lake and seemed to be pressing its body against the warmer earth under the leaf litter.
This bullfrog may have been caught out in the cold, but wintertime can be a great time for people to get out and explore the outdoors. Just be sure to check the latest weather forecast and wear blaze orange during hunting season. My family recently found winter hiding in the mountains (below).