In April 2019, four fields within the James L. Goodwin State Forest underwent a prescribed burn to create habitat diversity for wildlife and to control invasive species.
We often think of forest fires as a bad thing, and with good reason. Unplanned fires can be devastating, as seen with last November’s Camp Fire in Paradise, California. But when planned and executed by trained professionals, fires can greatly improve the overall health of our forests.
Fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems, and historically Native Americans used fire to clear land. Fire helps to maintain an early successional habitat for native plants such as goldenrod and dogbane, and wildlife such as the woodcock and bobolink. Also, burning helps to control some invasive plants, improves soil quality, and does not require expensive machinery or herbicides.
Prescribed burns require trained professionals who can manage the fire in a safe and controlled manner. Foresters, wildlife biologists, park supervisors, and fire protection staff must each review and approve a proposed burn plan. In order to burn an area, experts consider public safety, wildlife habitat, and the effectiveness of a burn on that site. If all parties agree that a burn is in order, a “burn window” is set to take advantage of ideal weather conditions while also accounting for the breeding and nesting times of local wildlife. The actual date of the burn is scheduled only during the burn window, but needs to remain flexible to account for ideal weather conditions. The time of day and site location even affect burn decisions, because within each site there may be places that are drier or wetter than their surroundings, depending on their slope and exposure to sunlight. Sites that are too dry will cause a very rapid spread, but those that are too wet can cause the fire to extinguish.
After a burn plan is approved and the weather conditions are ideal, the fires can be set. They are set using drip torches, which contain flammable liquid. The tip of the torch is ignited, and small "drips" of flame fall onto the ground. After the fires are set, they are monitored and if they spread too wide small rakes and shovels are used to control the edges. If needed, a water hose can be used to control flames in larger items such as downed trees.
Because the black color of the ash encouraged sunlight exposure and the rain fell regularly, it took less than two weeks for new life to sprout in the Goodwin fields. If you are interested in visiting Goodwin's prescribed burn sites, hike to "Grand Junction", which is located where the yellow and red trails intersect. See for yourself how the plant life has regenerated, and watch for wildlife. The type and behavior of wildlife will change gradually as the fields continue their succession from grasses to shrubs and young trees.
Check out these videos of the most recent prescribed burns in the Goodwin State Forest.