Field Notes: Partnerships at Pleasant Grove

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Pleasant Grove Park in Fluvanna County offers a nature-rich experience for visitors and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Behind the scenes, it’s also a model for collaboration between county government and a plethora of partners.

VDOF has been a part of several education and stewardship projects at the park, including establishment of a tree identification trail, providing trees for planting, and most recently, maintenance burning of fields to improve habitat.

On an April morning, members of VDOF’s Jefferson work team performed a prescribed burn of some grass fields at the park. The park plans to maintain these fields as early successional wildlife habitat, potentially establishing warm season grasses in the future. Forester Chuck Wright made all the preliminary arrangements for the burn, including meeting with the county Board of Supervisors to get approval to burn in the park. Although it was fire season, VDOF obtained a spring 4PM Burning Law exemption, which can be used for wildlife habitat maintenance and improvement if conditions allow. 

Conducting the burn were senior area forester David Powell, forester Jonah Fielding, and forest technicians Zach Long and Matthew Hutchins. Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer came out to observe, as did Master Naturalist volunteers Walter Hussey and Doug Rogers. Doug used his camera drone to photograph the burn from the air.

As with any prescribed fire, safety came first. The fields were near Fluvanna High School and a main road, so many factors had to align for a safe and successful burn. Weather forecasts were checked in the days leading up to the burn. Fire lines that had been plowed around the area weeks earlier were refreshed with the bulldozer. The morning of the burn, the county closed most of the park, and VDOT put up a road sign warning motorists of a burn in progress. Burn boss David Powell checked the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction before sending his team out with drip torches to light the first field. He continued to monitor the weather periodically, and an afternoon drop in humidity meant ending early, even though part of one field didn’t get burned.   

In contrast to the early successional fields, some areas of the park are being converted to forest. Walter Hussey is one of Pleasant Grove’s most active volunteers, and he has been involved with tree planting in many areas of the park. On a recent drizzly day, he and seven other members of the Rivanna chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists planted American chestnuts near the community gardens at Pleasant Grove. Jerre Creighton, research forester with VDOF, provided seedlings and nuts – a mix of pure American chestnut and hybrids that are 15/16 American. The hybrid trees are the result of years of backcross breeding with Chinese chestnut. Researchers hope the trees’ Chinese heritage brings along genes for long-term resistance to chestnut blight.

Master Naturalists are just one of the groups who collaborate with the county on stewardship and education at Pleasant Grove. There are also local Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards working to improve the park environment. And, as one volunteer at the planting put it, “Some of us wear more than one hat.”

County school students are also stewards of Pleasant Grove. In fact, the chestnuts joined a field of other wildlife-friendly hardwoods, including white oak, red mulberry, dogwood, black cherry, and American plum, that were planted on Earth Day two years ago by county first and second graders.

Tree shelters protect chestnuts and other young trees

It’s not often you find a local park with over twenty miles of hiking trails, river access, a dog park, pollinator garden, a historic home and museum, and more. Pleasant Grove Park is already a fabulous spot to visit, and thanks to the work of many partners, it just keeps getting better.

Field Notes: Longleaf Pine Planting at Big Woods

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine/Southern Pine Beetle Coordinator

On a cold but sunny Saturday in December, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) completed a longleaf pine planting project on their Big Woods State Forest (BWSF). Longleaf pine once covered more than 1,000,000 acres in Virginia, but it is now considered a diminished species. Until 25 years ago, only 200 mature longleaf pines were left in southeast Virginia. Longleaf pine now covers approximately 8,000 acres in the state, thanks to VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia, a cooperative group of state, local, and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.

Planting crew at work

The 41-acre BWSF tract planted on December 19 was originally an industrial loblolly pine plantation. The timber was clearcut earlier in 2020, and the tract was burned in July to prepare the site for planting. Dennis Gaston, VDOF State Forest forester, managed the timber sale, burning, planting contract, and field supervision. Through a generous grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, 23,000 native longleaf pine containerized seedlings grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Nursery were purchased and planted at BWSF. An experienced planting crew from South Carolina was hired to plant the trees. Dennis Gaston and the crew foreman supervised the planting operation to ensure the trees were planted properly and to the correct spacing.

Newly planted longleaf seedling

Southeastern Virginia is at the northern limit of the native range for longleaf pine. VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia have been working for more than 20 years to reestablish longleaf pine in its native Virginia habitat, thus providing a unique ecological niche which had been functionally eliminated. It is hoped that by adding longleaf pine to this site, both the plant and animal diversity on Big Woods State Forest will increase. An additional benefit will be the reintroduction of fire to the ecosystem in order to properly manage the new stand.

Special thanks for the successful completion of this project go to Jennifer Moon and Bradley Brandt at the Arbor Day Foundation, H and H Forestry, Elder and his seasoned crew of tree planters, the VDOF staff at Garland Gray Nursery, and Dennis Gaston.

What’s Happening at Whitney State Forest?: Part Two

On January 22, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) successfully conducted a burn on the first of two units (“the Field”) at Whitney State Forest scheduled for prescribed fire in the spring of 2020. (Read What’s Happening at Whitney State Forest? Part One for additional background information.)

“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.”

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The Field the morning before the fire.

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.

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Lighters ignite the small test fire area at the start of the burn.

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.

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Blacking out the downwind fire break.

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.

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The Field after the fire.

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.”

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A bird’s eye view of the Field, post fire.

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.

What’s Happening at Whitney State Forest?: Part One

Edited from a December 2019 notice from Whitney State Forest.

You may have noticed that the trail along the Shortleaf stand (see map) has been reopened and the trail around the Meadow (see map) has been widened.

Capture

This is in preparation for prescribed fire that the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) hopes to accomplish this winter or early spring.  (Note: The first portion of the prescribed burn took place on January 22, 2020.) Please use caution on these trails because they are not yet packed and the footing may be loose.

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If a piece of open land in Virginia is left undisturbed, the vegetation will naturally transition from grasses to shrubs to trees, eventually resulting in a closed-canopy forest. Mature forest is very important habitat, but native grasslands and meadows are equally important and have been in serious decline for decades. When land stewards apply prescribed fire to young forests and open spaces, we set back that natural transition towards closed-canopy forest; this is to the benefit of many insects, plants, birds and other animals.

Shortleaf pine is a diminished native species that has been established at Whitney State Forest with the goal of creating a pine savannah ecosystem. A pine savannah will provide structure from widely spaced trees, as well as grasses and herbaceous plants for native wildlife. Our goal in burning the Shortleaf stand is to encourage native grasses and reduce briars, invasive species and some deciduous tree encroachment. Shortleaf pine is fire adapted, meaning that the prescribed fire will not be harmful to most of the trees.

When the Meadow at Whitney State Forest was burned in 2017, we saw an explosion of growth from native warm season grasses and a decrease in invasive presence. We hope to continue that trend with the reapplication of fire this spring. Native grasslands adjacent to mature forest are particularly beneficial because of the diversity they offer to the landscape.

VDOF is dedicated to the safe and effective application of prescribed fire and will take all necessary precautions for safety during the event. The forest will be closed on the days the prescribed burns take place and the fire will be lit in such a way that it will not escape to other properties. The first portion of the prescribed burn has been completed, and a second parcel will be burned in late winter. An effective fire administered with this timing will allow for grasses and herbaceous plants to regrow for the nesting season of native bird species.

VDOF plans to share follow-up information as the burns are completed.

For more information, please contact VDOF’s Warrenton Office at 540-347-6358.

Field Notes: Good Fire or Bad Fire?

by VDOF Forester  Manij Upadhyay

Wildfire is a serious environmental issue in The United States and may cause significant damage to communities and properties. On the other hand, prescribed fire is an essential tool for forest managers. Each year prescribed burns are carried out on thousands of acres of land. You could say fire has two sides.

Fire has a bad side because each year large numbers of uncontrolled wildfires harm people, destroy homes, damage timber crops and other properties. It can cause harmful impacts on the environment: polluting air, damaging vegetation, degrading water and deteriorating soils.

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Goshen Pass wildfire 2017

However, if fire is used wisely by land managers, it can help in different ways. Fire can control unwanted invasive plants and promote the growth of desirable species. For example, longleaf pine responds well to fire, in fact its health is dependent of fire; the fire can help control other plants, allowing the longleaf to grow faster. Wildlife biologists use fire to create valuable wildlife habitat. Controlled fire, or prescribed fire, encourages the growth of new plants and produces more food for wild animals like white tail deer and quail. In addition, they reduce the risk of wildfires by decreasing the forest fuel load.

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VDOF staff conduct a prescribed burn

 

Only trained prescribed burn managers should carry out controlled burn activities. They prepare prescribed burn plans that take into consideration wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and the amount of forest fuel. They also think about fireline location and construction. A pre-constructed fireline limits the area to be burned before the actual burn starts.

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Prescribed burns require planning and management

 

A prescribed burn manager respects fire. They apply it carefully and with a purpose. Fire can indeed have a good side. If done without proper planning and preparation or by unskilled and unqualified it has a bad side. I think Smokey Bear would agree “only you can prevent wildlifes, never play with fire.”

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Prescribed burns have many benefits to managing forests; however they must be conducted by a qualified manager