Photography by Amanda Shields, The Mariners’ Museum and Park
Right in the heart of Newport News, you will soon be able to see a shortleaf pine forest. On a perfectly sunny March day, 700 shortleaf seedlings from the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) nursery found a new home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park.
With an historic range covering parts of twenty-two states and 282 million acres, shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is one of four pine species that were once prevalent in the Hampton Roads area. The species was found in a variety of forest types including pure stands, loblolly-shortleaf, and shortleaf pine-oak. However, thanks to fire suppression, land use changes, and a preference for the faster growing loblolly pine, shortleaf is now found in just a fraction of its original range. It is now considered a diminished species throughout much of the Southeast.
The planting project was the result of a partnership developed between VDOF and the Mariners’ Museum and Park that began last year. The park approached VDOF to create an updated management plan for their approximately 300 acres of forested land—a beloved escape from the urban setting of Newport News. While completing the plan, I noted that the park contained stands of pine, mixed pine and hardwood, and mixed hardwood. Interestingly, all four of the native pines – loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and some young planted longleaf pines – were present. I also found several areas where invasive species had overtaken the native vegetation, as is common in urban parks. One such area had also been damaged during Hurricane Isabelle in 2003 and had a sparse overstory. My advice was to clear the invasive species and do a restoration planting in these areas.
Given the decline of shortleaf pine in Virginia, the park staff chose it as the species to plant. The sparse overstory made the species a good choice for the site. The park received a Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant to assist with the planting. To prepare the site beforehand, Dave Kennedy and Graham King from the Mariners’ Museum and Park set to work with volunteers, clearing out the Callery pear, Japanese privet, English ivy, and other invasive species.
On the day of the planting, volunteers from the Peninsula Master Gardeners and Newport News Master Gardeners, led by Dave Kennedy, Graham King, and Erica Deale from the Mariners’ Museum and Park, worked diligently to get the bareroot seedlings into the ground. VDOF staff Scott Bachman, Kendall Topping, Stephen Jasenak and I all came out to assist with the planting as well.
The VDOF Blackwater team looks forward to seeing the seedlings grow and continuing to build this partnership with the Mariners’ Museum and Park.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
The southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) (SPB) is a small, seemingly innocuous beetle that brings new meaning to the phrase “small but mighty.” These beetles are known as the most destructive native forest insect in the Southeastern United States. While a single adult beetle is only about 1/8 inch long, the ability to aggregate quickly means these tiny insects can overtake a pine tree’s defenses in a short period of time. All species of southern pine are targets for SPB but favorite hosts include loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and pitch pine.
Females emerge first in the spring and fly to a suitable host where they bore into the tree and start creating their infamous “S”-shaped galleries in preparation for laying eggs after mating. Shortly after, they emit a pheromone (think seductive bug perfume) and the masses begin flocking to the suitable host tree. Each female is prolific with her egg production, producing upwards of 150 eggs over the course of her life! These eggs are laid in the galleries where the developing larvae then feed on the inner bark. As trees are killed or fill up with beetles, the outbreak spreads to neighboring trees and continues until suitable host material is no longer found or control measures are taken.
Historically, outbreaks of these destructive insects have been cyclical, occurring on average every five to seven years. Since they are native, they have a predator complex which helps control the populations and regulate outbreaks. However, since the early 2000s these outbreaks have been less common and almost non-existent here in Virginia. Many factors may contribute to the decrease in southern pine beetle abundance, including more intensive silvicultural practices, genetically improved trees and forest fragmentation.
The last big southern pine beetle occurrence noted in Virginia was first detected in 2012, and had become a full outbreak by 2014. This took place on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Forest Service observed the outbreak in 2016 from the air, and documented an average of 46 active SPB spots per thousand acres of host type. The average spot size calculated to be 1.5 acres. When a ground check was done, all spots visited had active adult, larvae and eggs, indicating that the population was still thriving. This area was hit particularly hard due to many factors: most of the pine was over-mature, overstocked and stressed from saltwater intrusion leading to a beetle buffet, ripe for the picking!
Unfortunately, no control efforts were enacted and the population continued to spread and the outbreak ultimately died out on its own. VDOF Forest Health staff flew the impacted area in October of 2018 and mapped 475 acres of pine mortality.
To monitor populations and predict future beetle spots, each year VDOF Forest Health sets up traps that are baited with pheromones mimicking the ones produced by females and stressed trees throughout the state. Trapping starts in spring, around the time that beetles would start looking for suitable trees. Last year, we trapped in 10 counties, placing a total of 24 traps around the state. VDOF foresters and Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation employees sample each week and VDOF Forest Health sorts the contents, counting the number of SPB caught as well as their associated natural predator, the clerid beetle. The good news for Virginia is that our SPB population levels continue to persist at low and static levels! We will continue to monitor these insects and their activity (or lack thereof!) and trapping efforts are planned for spring of 2019.
Lately we have been recertifying trees for the Virginia Big Tree Register. Trees on this register are checked every ten years to see if they are still alive, and if so, remeasured. The swamp chestnut oak above is located in Mathews County. It is 6.5 feet in diameter and 96 feet tall
We have also recently encountered a number of big trees that are not on the register yet.
The yellow-poplar above (also called tulip poplar and tulip tree) is in the middle of a 40 year old pine forest, but within view of the owner’s house.
The same landowner has a tree that he and his granddaughter have named the Rest Stop Tree (below).
It is a yellow-poplar that fell over sideways early in its life, and the side branches started growing upwards. The tree serves as a favorite rest stop during family walks. Trees that are special for any reason can be nominated to the Remarkable Trees of Virginia Project.
Meanwhile, it is reforestation time, and very hardworking crews have arrived in Virginia to plant loblolly and shortleaf pine seedlings in cutovers.
These men have traveled from Guatemala and Mexico to work in the southeastern U.S. for planting season. Each man plants about 3,700 trees per day.