Controlled burns for wildlife yield benefits

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controlled burns

FRANKLIN, Pa. — The areas may not look pretty immediately after a fire, but controlled burns on state lands in Pennsylvania are part of a management plan to improve forest health and grasslands. And they seem to be working.

In 2018, more than 520 acres of state game lands and hunter access properties in six of the 10 counties of the northwest region have been treated using controlled burns, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission Northwest Region Director Richard T. Cramer.

“The Game Commission has been using controlled burns to improve wildlife habitat for many years with outstanding results,” said Cramer. “This year more emphasis was placed on woodland burns, but the weather simply did not cooperate for us to meet our projected goals.”

Management tool

Controlled burning is a habitat enhancement tool that can be used to promote healthy forests, oak regeneration, and grasslands.

Fire helps to promote oak forest regeneration by reducing competition from less desirable tree species (such as black birch and red maple) through a controlled and slow-moving fire. After the fire moves through an area, more fire-tolerant oak trees and seedlings remain and become the dominant species as the forest grows.

Oak acorns benefit a variety of wildlife species because of their high nutritional value and are sought after as a fall food source by a variety of birds and mammals as they prepare for winter.

Safety first

Timing of the burn is weather-dependent and takes into account the amount of moisture both in the ground and on the growing vegetation. Access to the burn site is restricted to only trained fire personnel and all necessary local fire and emergency personnel are notified in advance.

In the weeks prior to the burn, fire breaks were established or maintained around the entire area. Just prior to initiating burn operations, a small and easily extinguished “test fire” burn was conducted to check fire behavior and smoke-dispersal patterns.

If the “Burn Boss,” the site supervisor, approved the fire to proceed, an experienced crew made up of personnel from the Game Commission and other natural resources agencies used a regimented process to burn the site.

Work crews were assigned to various jobs including interior ignition, wind and temperature monitoring, and perimeter containment using specialized Utility Task Vehicles, water packs, and a variety of hand tools.

As the fire would begin to burn out, areas with flames near the perimeter were extinguished and those on the interior were allowed to burn out gradually. The entire area was then closely monitored over the next few days.

2018 sites

State Game Lands in the Northwest Region, and the acreage that received controlled burn treatment, include State Game Lands 24 (Forest County, 56 acres of woodland); State Game Lands 39 (Venango County, 43.1 acres of grassland); State Game Lands 63 (Clarion County, 110 acres of woodland and 9.7 acres of grassland); State Game Lands 162 (Erie County, 47.2 acres of grassland); State Game Lands 284 (Mercer County, 44.58 acres of grassland); State Game Lands 330 (Clarion County, 115.4 acres of grassland); and Shenango Area 415 (Mercer County, 12.46 acres of grassland).

Additionally, the game commission was able to assist one landowner by conducting a controlled burn on a Hunter Access property in Clarion County (7 acres of grassland).

“Areas treated with controlled burns were not a pretty sight initially, however, these operations ultimately resulted in areas that will produce excellent habitat that is beneficial to wildlife,” Cramer said.

A controlled burn map that details information on burns that are planned can be found at www.pgc.pa.gov under wildlife/habitat management/controlled burning.

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