Fire in Oak Workshop Recap: Regional Differences, Local Applicability

The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange (NAFSE) held a two-day workshop on Fire in Oak: Regional Differences, Local Applicability. Hosted by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MA DFW), the workshop featured a full-day field trip to fire-influenced oak sites in the vicinity of Westborough, Massachusetts, as well as an outstanding indoor program featuring speakers with fire and oak experience in New England and beyond. Participants came from federal, state, and local agencies as well as universities, conservation organizations, and consulting businesses, all with an interest in fire, oak, or both.

Click the map image to access a virtual field trip.

Click the map image to access a virtual field trip.

The weather on June 15 was perfect for the field trip, and over 50 participants crowded into the bus and vehicle convoy, ready for a full day of learning. The first stop brought us to Crocker Conservation Area, a property of the North County Land Trust in Fitchburg. This area was swept by a large forest fire in November of 1948, as evidenced by fire scars and the quality and composition of the residual stand. Forester Roger Plourde is working with the land trust to outline achievable management objectives and implement treatments that reflect the site history and values the land provides. A chief objective is to promote mast species such as red oak to benefit wildlife and wood product markets while improving the overall health of the stand (for example, by reducing infected areas of beech and leaving some resistant beech) and protecting the water quality in the nearby Overlook Reservoir. Roger showed the group several stands that had been affected by the 1948 fire that had undergone various treatments since then. One participant noted that there was not a lot of deer browse in the area. The absence of deer browse promoted the regeneration of oaks and was attributed to hunting. It was noted that the area was ‘at goal’ for deer density. The group discussed treatment options and the potential for fire to be used in combination with silviculture to achieve the desired results at Crocker Conservation Area. One participant pointed out that fire treatments would have a longer maintenance time scale than silviculture treatments alone, as the areas would need to be re-burned approximately every five years until conditions were ripe for a pre-mast year. However, the cost of such maintenance burns would decrease with every fire.

First Field Trip Stop at Crocker Conservation Area with host Roger Plourde. Photos by Joel Carlson and Inga La Puma.

Our second field trip stop brought us to Green Hill Park in the heart of the City of Worcester, a forested green belt maintained as parkland for over a century. Here, a “delinquent-dependent” fire regime (i.e. juvenile delinquents set fires) has sustained a chestnut oak woodland that features chestnut oak, black oak, scarlet oak, and red oak on rocky soils. MA DFW restoration ecologist Chris Buelow and habitat biologist Caren Caljouw described the stand history and studies of the vegetation on site. The group witnessed firsthand the vigor of the fire-dependent natural communities that included ericaceous shrubs and scrub oaks, as well as a diversity of oaks in all strata of the forest. Chris noted that there is also a high diversity of moth species in the park. Discussion focused on how to maintain this site (rather than restore it) with prescribed fire using the natural fuel breaks of the trails and other borders. 

Second field trip stop at Green Hill Park with hosts Chris Buelow and Caren Caljouw. Photos by Inga La Puma.

The third and final field trip stop provided yet another exciting contrast in the suburbanized Massachusetts fire landscape. Perkins Farm Conservation Area is an 80-acre woodland adjacent to a shopping center and was the site of Worcester’s last working farm. Like Green Hill Park, it bears evidence of a “delinquent-dependent” fire regime. More recently, however, Perkins Farm Conservation Area was the site of a graduate student study in 1999. Brian Hawthorne, now a habitat biologist at MA DFW, described the site history and treatments with input from Dr. Bill Patterson, emeritus professor at UMass-Amherst. The last fire in the area was thought to be 10-15 years ago until during the field trip, when Dr. Patterson discovered evidence of a recent fire. Additionally, it was noted that in some areas where there was a lot of shade, no maples were establishing. This was attributed to a lack of seed source in the area. There was discussion about the best time to burn to promote oak regeneration, ideally after maple bud break and before oak bud break. Additionally, to restore oaks, it was suggested that burning every few years would prepare the seedbed for good acorn years that occur every 5-7 years. Some oak trees produce more acorns than others and should be recognized, but the soil moisture of an area would also determine success. The Perkins Farm field stops stimulated intense conversation about fire history and the potential for future management with fire in mixed oak woodlands.

Third field trip stop at Perkins Farm Conservation Area. Photos by Joel Carlson.

The field trip discussions were the perfect backdrop for the indoor program on June 16. NAFSE workshop coordinator Amanda Mahaffey described the goals for this gathering, which include sharing information about fire in oak systems, helping participants connect science to practice in these systems, and framing questions that can help us better understand and manage fire-influenced tree oak systems. Dr. Patterson welcomed the group with an overview of the role of fire in shaping Massachusetts’ oak landscape, noting the variability of maple densities in the understory between the eastern and western parts of the state. Chris Buelow and Caren Caljouw gave a virtual tour of fire-influenced tree oak communities, including landscape history, stressors such as deer herbivory, and associated flora and fauna that benefit from fire in oak systems. Interesting sites included dry mesic oak-hickory sites with more sedges and yellow oak sites with higher pH.

To see pdf's of all presentations click here.

The next segment focused on the benefits of fire in oak-dominated natural communities. Dr. Marc Abrams, a professor at Penn State University’s School of Forest Resources, described the long-term relationship between human communities, fire, and oak in New England’s forest ecosystems. He noted that 100 birds and other mammals depend on oaks as a major food source. Dr. Abrams also pointed out that we currently have no historical precedent for maple dominance in Eastern forests and that oaks are more drought-tolerant than maples, which could be helpful knowledge given predicted climate fluxes. Next, Peter Grima, service forester with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, described the ecological backdrop and his fascination with the role of fire in the Berkshires, an area not famous for its fire history, but with obvious signs of fire invading into some areas. The story continued with a presentation by ecologist Diane Burbank and silviculturalist Jeff Tilley on The Dome, a rare oak community in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont adjacent to Massachusetts’ Berkshires.

Peter Grima top left and Diane Burbank bottom right. Photos by Amanda Mahaffey and Joel Carlson.

The afternoon program delved into operational challenges for using fire in oak and the opportunities for the fire-silviculture combination tool for securing oak regeneration. Joel Carlson, principal of Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC, outlined the steps needed to implement safe and ecologically sound fire on the ground in Massachusetts. We should not be discouraged; as Joel reminded participants, “Some of the greatest learning can happen in adaptive management.” He recommended going looking at the classic “Rainbow Series” reports on fire in ecosystems, which contain a series of informative before-and-after photos in oak ecosystems. John Scanlon, habitat program leader at MA DFW, used data to paint a picture of the composition and health of Massachusetts’ forests and the opportunities for fire, silviculture, and deer herd control to increase resilience in the state’s treasured oak forests. Dr. Jeff Ward, chief scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, presented findings from recent research on fire and silviculture in Connecticut, including timing of prescribed burning in combination with shelterwood harvests to optimize oak regeneration. He noted that areas with hotter fire had less resprout of maple. The final presentation by John Neely of the White Mountain National Forest, rounded out the geographical tour of fire in oak in New England with a look at fire and silvicultural tools with numerous on-the-ground examples in the oak component of this national forest in New Hampshire.

Afternoon breakout session and Joel Carlson - right. Photos by Amanda Mahaffey.

To capture the questions posed throughout the program, the participants worked in breakout groups to identify the most urgent and salient questions for oak systems as well as guidelines for managers to use fire as a tool in fire-influenced oak systems. NAFSE leadership team members Erin Lane, Inga La Puma, and Nick Skowronski facilitated the discussions. One group teased out factors other than fire that create this type of system, such as mineral bedrock and disturbances other than fire. Other questions included: what is the effect of single versus repeated treatments interacting with different types of structure; and what are the interactions between prescribed fire, wildfire, deer browse, and light? Another group determined that we still do not have irrefutable evidence that silviculture without fire or herbicide treatments in the place of fire is not as successful as prescribed fire practices. The third group determined that because every site is different, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment; rather, a combination of fire and silvicultural tools based on site climate, structure, and species can help achieve oak restoration or maintenance goals. One group noted that ten acres with rare species could be equivalent to 1,000 acres with common species. To successfully achieve management goals, future scientific research can help us ascertain New England-specific modeling results, while greater experience, trained personnel, and funding will help implement fire on the landscape.

The Fire in Oak: Regional Differences, Local Applicability workshop brought together fire scientists and land managers for excellent information sharing.  We are building the regional knowledge base of people at work in these systems. As one speaker said, there are 1,000 stories per acre in these forests. It is imperative for us to ask what types of management will help us achieve our objectives, and it is up to us to write the next chapter. 

A great few days at the Oak Capstone - photo by inga la puma

A great few days at the Oak Capstone - photo by inga la puma