Afire is not normally something a sportsman, outdoor recreationist or forester likes to see, but sometimes it's needed.
Prescribed or controlled burns are done to achieve various goals in forest management, according to Jake Richards, forest fire specialist supervisor for Tiadaghton State Forest-District 12.
Fires can be used to control, improve or decrease wildlife habitat, fuel reduction, invasive species, competing vegetation, site preparation, and insect and disease.
A controlled or prescribed burn was used to help clear invasive species at Camp Kline/Bonnell Flats outside Ramsey on the Pine Creek Rail Trail. Here, Floyd Hartman uses a drip torch to start a part of the controlled burn.
"I use controlled burns for two reasons. One is for training purposes and the other is for fuel reduction," said Craig Aldenderfer, forest fire specialist supervisor, for Loyalsock State Forest-District 20. "As a training tool, it is used especially for our newer folks who have little or no fire experience."
During a training session, Aldenderfer uses the fire in a controlled setting to manipulate or show the types of fire behavior, so students get an idea of what they may be seeing out in the field.
"With the fuel reduction, we are trying to remove the buildup of fuels, which have happened in the absence of fire. That way, if a fire does burn through the area at a later time, it will not be as intense," he said.
Prescribed fires can help with forest regeneration.
"As a forester, I look at the ecological benefits of a controlled burn. We use them for site preparation to help establish desirable seedling regeneration, usually oak," said Gerald Hoy, service forester in District 20.
Oaks can withstand a low- to mid-intensity fire because of their thicker bark and stronger root systems, he said.
"When an acorn germinates, most of the seedling's energy goes to establishing a strong root system," he said. "It's not uncommon to find a 5- to 6-year-old oak seedling only a foot tall or so."
The oak seedlings will grow, but the root systems of competing seedlings and vegetation can overtop the oak and keep it from getting light.
"With the correct intensity controlled burn, we can kill most of the competing vegetation and only 'top kill' the oak seedlings," Hoy said. "Then the oak seedlings grow right back off of that oversized root system, where the thinner-barked seedlings take a couple years to become established again."
Bonnell Flats is one area where controlled fire has slowed the spread of invasive species.
"Some of the areas we have burned in the past were open fields and open woods to hinder some invasive plants so the natural grasses can grow. We will also burn areas of the forest to try to eliminate natural woody competition, but this will only be done in areas where natural oak seedlings are present," said Floyd Hartman, a forest technician who works in District 12.
In Pennsylvania, controlled burns often are started using drip torches and a mixture of diesel and gasoline, but techniques vary depending on the specific locations.
Much planning goes into a prescribed burn well before any flame touches a woody fuel, Richards said.
"First we look at an area we want to burn, then figure out the best way to mitigate any hazards that may cause the fire to spread out of control such as thinning the trees, limbing up any ladder fuels, building containment lines with hand crews or dozers, and limiting the fuels on the ground," he said.
Then a burn plan is started. Resources are lined up with a crew and equipment to do the burn.
Weather conditions are monitored closely to ensure safety and are constantly monitored when the burn is going on.
"When all this is accomplished, it is a matter of choosing the right day to proceed with the burn, according to past, present and future weather conditions. We only have a small window of opportunity once all the conditions are right to do the burn," Richards said.
"Once we set fire to the site, we control (it) by the amount of fire we lay down on the ground and with the spacing of the strips as we burn," he said.
Spacing strips are put down to make a distance between strips of fire when burning off the fuels.
"When we are done burning a section of forest, or block, we then make sure everything is mopped up before moving to the next area or block," Richards said. "We hold the fire within containment lines that have been put in place before the burn occurs, the same way we hold a wildfire, with men, equipment and backburning."
Hartman said two prescribed burns are planned for this year in District 12 - one in Bonnell Flats and another in a 105-acre oak stand.
"The oak stand has an excellent crop of 10-year-old red oak seedlings on the ground competing with striped maple and sweet birch," he said. "We're hoping to either kill or stunt the growth of the striped maple and sweet birch and this will allow the red oak to re-sprout and hopefully outgrow the competition."