Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, April 14, 2017

Scorched Earth, Rebirth

Scherman Hoffman, 4/12/2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
I write during the Easter period. Easter is the time of spiritual renewal and rebirth. It coincides, most years, with the full arrival of spring.

April finally feels like April here in NJ after a February that felt like May and a March that felt like January. The early-blooming daffodils are finally at peak beauty after starting to grow too early and then stopping when it turned cold.

The furnace is off and I keep the window open a bit at night, so in the morning I hear the white-throated sparrows calling for "old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody;" the titmice calling for "Peter, Peter;" and the chickadees greeting me with "hey, Sweetie." The downy woodpeckers are drumming against a nearby tree, proclaiming this is their breeding territory now. The male goldfinches are in their more-familiar bright yellow breeding color. The male juncos that winter in NJ have taken off north to claim their breeding patches, waiting for their potential mates to join them. 
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Birds are at the feeders, getting the fuel they need to sing, defend territories and live to sing another day.

These are the expected signs of spring. But there is another, less familiar sign - the controlled, or prescribed, burn.

Earlier this month I attended a nature program with, among others, Mike Anderson, the director of NJ Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville. Someone asked him about his "burn" and he replied that he had the permit but it gives only a short time to do the burning and time was running out. If it couldn't be done soon, before his planned Easter week vacation, it would have to be put off another year.

As the pictures here, taken at Scherman Hoffman this week, show, he got his burn. Conditions have to be right. It can't be too windy and hot, the ground can't be too wet or dry. That was why the burn had to be delayed until nearly the last minute.

Scherman Hoffman is not alone. The managed area of the federal Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was burned on April 13 but, according to one volunteer, the burn turned out to be less extensive than planned.

It may seem like a contradiction to use a scorched earth policy - we have to torch this forest to save it - to promote growth in a sanctuary or refuge area, but fire is a natural part of the eco-system. Some seeds, such as those of the pitch pine, won't open unless burned. Burning dead wood allows sun to break in and new trees to sprout and grow. In the case of Scherman Hoffman, Mike Anderson said the idea is to burn the ground and when the inevitable invasive plants - the barberry, the knotweed and the like - take advantage to grow ahead of the native plants, go in and pull them out so the natives can thrive. 
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

In the case of the Great Swamp, the idea was to get rid of the overgrowth around the various impoundments and make it attractive to migrating waterfowl. According to the press release put out by Morris County, where this part of the federally run Swamp is located:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regularly conducts prescribed burns on refuge lands to maintain and restore habitat for wildlife. The goal of these prescribed burns is to increase the amount of open water available to waterfowl by reducing the amount of standing dead vegetation and invading woody vegetation in three of the impoundments.

Once restored, these impoundments will provide better feeding, nesting, brood rearing, and resting habitat for all waterbird species that use the refuge. In addition to improved habitat, visitors to the refuge also benefit from prescribed burns because fire promotes native species and habitats, thus increasing wildlife observation opportunities.''

Other parks use controlled burns to improve the overall health of the forest. As the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky explains:
Due to our successful prevention and suppression efforts, fire patterns were markedly altered during the past century. In the absence of fire, massive insect and disease epidemics and various other forest health problems have proliferated.
(RE Berg-Andersson)
That's why:
The historic suppression of fire has resulted in a lack of periodic, natural fire in our forest. The absence of these low intensity fires has increased the risk of large fire events and has negatively impacted the health of our forests.
Why were burns suppressed? Because if done improperly, when the conditions are too dry and/or too windy, they can go horribly wrong. And in NJ, one of the most population-dense states in the US, if not THE most population dense because of its small size and proximity to New York City and Philadelphia - a barrel tapped at both ends, as Benjamin Franklin once said - more and more housing developments are very close to parks and woods. 

And when you have continued heat and dry weather, you have a greater danger of fire. Many burns take place specifically to take out dead wood and invasives to try to forestall the risk of a more destructive forest fire.

In the case of the NJ Pinelands, where combustible pitch pines and sandy soil predominate, there have always been small towns within. Fires were expected. However, now there are these big, nearby housing developments - many of them nursing homes and "active adult" communities - which are threatened whenever there is a fire, even a planned one.

Consider what can go wrong. In 2015 the Colorado  State Forest Service set fire to an overgrown forest near the Lower North Fork of the Platte River, about 40 miles outside Denver.  But, according to, apparently no one looked at the weather patterns and so warm temperatures and high winds fanned a fire that burned 1,400 acres, destroyed 23 homes and killed three people.
(RE Berg-Andersson)

Also, when you burn something, you have to make sure the fire is out completely. As MH and I walked around Scherman Hoffman, a breeze blew charged, black, paper-thin particles around us. These particles were cold but sometimes embers start new fires if they are not completely extinguished.

“The only reason that anybody gives for doing [burns] is that it’s ‘natural,’” a homeowner who lost his home to that 2015 Colorado fire told OutsideOnline. com. “But it isn’t natural anymore. It’s where humans live.”  

And that, of course, is the problem. Too many people living in areas where they could get burned, literally, as part of nature's cycle of renewal and rebirth.

Fire, like death, is a fact of life.

Updated 5pm, Friday, April 14.