Interview with Neil Gifford and Tyler Briggs on Flat Rock and the Flat Rock Wildfire of 2018

Photos by Tyler Briggs and Mark Lesser

In preparation for our August webinar and September workshop, we posed questions to Neil Gifford, Conservation Director at Albany Pine Bush, and Tyler Briggs, Fire Management and GIS specialist at Albany Pine Bush. Neil has always been fascinated with Flat Rock and conducted his research at the site while in graduate school. Neil was the impetus for the our workshop there and sparked our interest in the research and fire history at the site. Tyler helped fight the 2018 Flat Rock Wildfire and was able to give a first hand account of some of the operations that occurred at that time.

For more information on the August 2019 Webinar on the site CLICK HERE>
For more information on the September 2019 Workshop and field trip CLICK HERE>

Questions for Neil Gifford:

Where is Flat Rock? Flat Rock is in NY’s hinterlands, north of the Adirondack Park and about 10 miles from the U.S.-Canada border in the Champlain Valley of Clinton County.

What makes it so special? Flat Rock it is impressive and is unlike anywhere I have ever been; it is big, flat, stark, beautiful, and the end game of an almost unimaginable confluence of geology, glacial history and wildland fire in a landscape dominated by run-of-the-mill northern hardwood forest. It is also a very special classroom and laboratory. Flat Rock is one of those natural places that once you have visited you can never forget; it stains your brain.

Fire Ecology: At roughly 3,000 acres, Flat Rock is the largest in a short chain of enigmatic habitat islands that support what the NY Natural Heritage Program has classified as jack pine sandstone pavement barrens. There is little soil (<4 inches) and there are expansive areas of exposed pink/gray sandstone bedrock; the bedrock was exposed following a catastrophic flood at the end of last ice age (and much of it is still barren). Unlike the jack pine (Pinus banksiana) of the upper Midwest, the lack of soil has severely stunted tree growth. There is also no ecotone with the surrounding hardwood forest, and little more than a seemingly endless thicket of blueberry and huckleberry in the understory. Jack pine is serotinous, naturally regenerating only after intense wildland fire. Preceding the historic January 1998 ice storm, the site was composed of four even-aged stands dating to stand-replacing wildfires in 1919, 1940, 1957 and 1965. Mechanical management after the ice storm has successfully regenerated jack pine and alleviated wildfire risk. Lastly, Flat Rock represents the southern extent of jack pine’s range and the northern extent for pitch pine; the southern end of the site contains a pitch pine heath barrens.  

Living Classroom: Since the 1970’s, Flat Rock has been used as a living classroom for countless undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in various environmental science majors at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. The bulk of the site is owned by two entities, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the W. H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute. Through a cooperative relationship between the two, a subset of students in the Center for Earth and Environmental Science (CEES) attend an intense hands-on residential semester each fall at the Miner Center in Chazy, NY. Flat Rock’s unique ecology, geology, hydrology and wildlife make it a perfect place to learn Wildlife Ecology and Management, Introduction to Soil Science, and Forest Ecology and Management. The site is also the subject of many undergraduate and graduate research projects, including my own 1994 study of how the site’s fire history influenced breeding season birds.

What are you most excited about for the September workshop? I am most excited to share this site and its amazing fire ecology, management, and scholarship with the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange (NAFSE) community. Flat Rock seems to be one region’s best kept secrets. Its fire regime and fire ecology are unlike anything I have seen at other fire-dependent sites in the region, yet very few folks seem to have heard about it or been there. Since encouraging education and training in fire ecology and management is a NAFSE priority, I am equally excited to introduce our network to the CEES program, and its students and faculty to NAFSE. It is also one of the few places in the region where undergraduate students are learning field-based fire ecology and management.

Questions for Tyler Briggs:

What role did you plan in operations on the 2018 wildfire at Flat Rock?

I worked as a Firing Boss on Monday (7/16) and a Crew/Engine Boss on Tuesday (7/17). The fire started on 7/12/2018. Logistics Section Chief Bryan Gallagher called me on Sunday evening (7/15/2018). He told me they had finished most of the dozer work around the fire. He asked if I was available and interested in helping with some burnouts the following day in locations where the terrain would not allow the dozer to go direct with the fire.

  • I brought a crew of six up from Albany pre-dawn on Monday morning. We drove some equipment up: a TNC Type 6 engine and two Albany Pine Bush UTVs. The crew consisted of three volunteers, two APB seasonal firefighters, and myself.

  • We were assigned to division ‘Z’ in the morning briefing and would work under Division Supervisor Michael Bodnar.

  • Div. Sup. Bodnar had us scout the line for firing while two dozers and the Moriah Prison Crew prepped the line for the burnout.

  • I called NOAA and got an updated weather forecast and directed firing and holding operations on two burnouts (one about 30 acres, the second about 10 acres) on Monday the 16th.

  • Tuesday, we mopped up what we lit off Monday.

 

What challenges did you and other firefighters encounter?

  • New location and fuel: It is always a challenge working on a new fire in a place that you have not been before. I have worked a wildfire in the jack pine forests located in the Huron-Manistee National Forest in Michigan. The fuels at Flat Rock are not identical, but are similar to the fuels in Michigan. Flat Rock is also not that different from the Pine Barrens of Albany or Long Island.

  • Working around equipment: The dozers are very loud, and it is important to communicate with the Heavy Equipment Boss,and to give them their distance. They were working in front of the burnout, increasing the width of the firebreak from 10 to 30 feet.

  • Weather Conditions and location of Firebreaks: On a prescribed fire, you get to position your crew and equipment on the down-wind side of the burn unit and burn on a day with favorable winds. The wildfire and terrain influenced the firebreak along Division ‘Z’. The line had some zig and zag that created some issues with the wind direction. We had some heat and firebrands blowing over the line and one slop-over about the size of a truck. It was also late July and very hot outside, so it was important to keep the crew hydrated.

  • Human Factors: The fire had been burning very actively for 4 days before we got there. The crew had spent a lot of time and energy getting the firebreak around it. We really wanted to make sure the burnouts were done in a safe and effective manner so that Division Z could be buttoned up. Two State Police Bell helicopters with bambi-buckets were circling the burn in support of our first burnout. Before we got to the second, the IC had increased the helicopter total to four with the support of two National Guard Blackhawks (as a contingency). Stress was high.

What was the fire behavior like?

  • The fire had flame lengths that varied from less than 1 ft. in wetter areas to greater than 30 ft. in stands of jack pine with dense huckleberry and blueberry underneath.

  • For a closer look at the fire behavior, you are welcome to follow this link to my pictures and videos. 

The last question was directed at both Neil and Tyler- they both had their own take on the answer.

Do you see a potential role for prescribed fire in meeting ecological and human safety objectives at Flat Rock?

Tyler: I think that Flat Rock will catch fire again. I believe that most of it is owned by the State, and the use of prescribed fire will depend on their management objectives.

Neil: Yes. Since jack pine typically regenerates as a result of stand-replacing crown fires, relying solely on natural or accidental wildfire here is unpredictable and may threaten both the ecology and the surrounding communities. Despite being sparsely populated, losing even one life or building to a catastrophic wildfire is unacceptable. The 2018 growing season wildfire burned under relatively moderate conditions and produced what seemed to be relatively manageable fire behavior, yet it seemed to benefit fuel reduction while maintaining the site’s ecology. Carefully planned prescribed fire in this remote pine barren may, therefore, help protect both ecology and human safety, while offering educational and fire training opportunities.