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.

Reaction: NAFSE/NFFPC's ESRI Decision-Support Tools for Wildland Fire Management Workshop

We asked a few questions of Marie Cook (GIS Specialist, New Jersey Forest Fire Service, New Jersey Forest Service) about the ESRI workshop that we held in conjunction with the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact at the end of November! Thanks Marie, for providing your first hand account! Contact if you are interested in the videos of this workshop.

What did you learn unexpectedly? 

I was unexpectedly introduced to one of Esri’s newer mobile apps, Workforce for ArcGIS. During the workshop, Fern used Workforce to dispatch data collection tasks during team field exercises. Each team leader received assignments through the app and used the map-centric interface to navigate to the location of our next task. Integration with apps like Collector and Survey123 allowed each to be launched directly from Workforce, taking the guess work out of which app and map was needed for each collection. Fern could track field activities on a map “back at the office” to quickly tell which tasks were accepted, declined, and completed during the exercises. 

We also got news to watch for the release of Aurora, a new version of the Collector for ArcGIS app! 

How did group dynamics play into the workshop? 

While fire and maps brought everyone together for the workshop, there was a lot of variation in the roles each of us play in our home agencies. This variety of experience and expertise seemed to have rounded the perspectives of each team. Within my group, this dynamic allowed us each to use free work time to independently explore and showcase a different tool in the ArcGIS Online (AGO) suite to address needs we have in our day jobs. Other groups found more common ground and worked together to design complete workflows using multiple applications to collect, display, and report data. Overall, I was reminded that drastically different goals can sometimes be accomplished with the same tools and similar workflows. 


Photo by Amanda Mahaffey, Fern Ferner of ESRI, second from right.

 How will skills learned in the workshop be used in the future? 

I know everyone in attendance walked away with at least one idea of how tools demonstrated in the workshop can be used to make data collection and information sharing more efficient at home. From data collection tools for field staff to custom reporting dashboards for agency administrators, the vast and growing utility of Esri’s AGO tools is just beginning to be realized by many. I believe the workshop was delivered in such a way that attendees gained the confidence to embrace changing technologies, along with the foundation of understanding and skills needed to implement AGO workflows within their home agencies. 

Interview: Tom Gerber of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service Travels to Tall Timbers for the Prescribed Fire Consortium Week

In mid-April, Tom Gerber was invited by NAFSE to travel to Tall Timbers Research Station located in Tallahassee, Florida as an ambassador for NAFSE representing fire managers in the Northeast during the Prescribed Fire Consortium annual week of fireline experimentation on the property. Although Tom is a community representative for NAFSE representing the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, he travelled to Tall Timbers Prescribed Fire Consortium meeting/field work week as a New Jersey cranberry farmer and land manager as well. These perspectives were important in the mix of folks who participated in observing and conducting the work throughout the week.  Tom answered a few questions after being down at Tall Timbers to observe the research, collaborations, public interactions, and ecosystem challenges presented by long-leaf pine prescribed fire.

Tom Gerber, NAFSE Community Representative, at right, on a research burn in New Jersey's pinelands. Photo by Nick Skowronski.

Tom Gerber, NAFSE Community Representative, at right, on a research burn in New Jersey's pinelands. Photo by Nick Skowronski.

What was it like to finally visit the Tall Timbers Research Station, a stronghold of prescribed fire research and history?
It was interesting to see the similarities with New Jersey with the long history of prescribed fire in the region, fire is everything there! It is essentially the other side of the greater pine ecosystem with NJ being towards the northern end. People were super, the old plantation farm house was beautiful. Tallahassee is 25 minutes from Tall Timbers and they have limited growth and development in the area, similar to the Pinelands Management Area.

What is the goal of the Prescribed Fire Consortium research group you were visiting there?
This group of scientists got together to fill in the gaps in prescribed fire science. Most wildland fire science is concerned with wildfires, rather than prescribed fires. This group is looking at modeling tools that work for prescribed fires as well as the unique fire effects we get from prescribed fires.

Consortium group observe area after a burn. Photo by Brian Wiebler

Consortium group observe area after a burn. Photo by Brian Wiebler

What was your primary goal for visiting during this week?
I wanted to see what was going on down there and see if NJ and the North Atlantic region could do similar things. I was going as a representative of fire managers in the Northeast, so I wanted to compare what we do and see the significance of annual burning that is common there.

What was your favorite moment of the trip?
My favorite moment was meeting Paul, an old timer land manager on the tree plantation who studied under Neal as a teen (from the Stoddard-Neal method of ecological forestry). He had good local knowledge. 

Who did you most identify with and why?
I most identified with Wayne Taylor, a land manager at Tall Timbers. He overseas 100,000 acres of forest and is the landscape fire team coordinator. He deals with smoke management, and different management goals for different blocks. They have a lot of equipment and spend almost $20,000 a year on fuel to conduct prescribed fires.

What was something brand new that you learned? 
Most things I learned re-affirmed the institutional knowledge we have in NJ at the upper range of the pines. I learned that the longleaf needles have double the flame length of our pitch pine needles.

What is your biggest take home message or advice for managers in the Northeast based on your experience in Tall Timbers? 
My biggest take home is that we need to keep promoting and educating the public on the importance of prescribed fire in the North Atlantic region.

Thank you Mike Gallagher and Nick Skowronski for helping with this interview.

Ann Camp: Afire for teaching

Dr. Ann Camp recently retired from the faculty of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, where she ignited a passion for fire in countless students and colleagues. NAFSE caught up with Ann to hear more of her story and to better understand the legacy of her teaching in fire science in the Northeast.

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Ann’s first fell in love with fire while working in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where she became fascinated by the way fires influenced this ecosystem. Her passion for fire science was truly ignited during a Fire Ecology course at the University of Washington. Ann went on to study the work of Dr. Jim Agee, Dr. Thomas Ledig, Dr. Murray F. Buell, Dr. William S. Cooper, Dr. Benjamin Stout, Dr. Hugh Raup, and others who influenced the way we understand the role of fire, fire exclusion, deer, anthropogenic ignitions, and forest succession today.

Ann began fueling the fire in the ecology community (metaphorically speaking, of course) as a USDA Forest Service researcher and doctoral candidate. With the listing of the Spotted Owl as an endangered species, forests needed to be managed to include their preferred habitat (late successional) which was vulnerable due to the fuel ladders within this habitat structure. Ann’s work provided guidelines on where fire could be sustainably incorporated within a fire-regulated landscape. “Before my PhD came out in the peer-reviewed literature, I photocopied literally hundreds of copies of my dissertation as news of my work spread throughout the Inland Western U.S. and Canada,” said Ann, “My work on late-successional fire refugia in fire-regulated landscapes was rewarding in that many public and private forests incorporated my findings into their management plans.” 

While Ann loves low-elevation ponderosa pine forests in the Pacific Northwest, the New Jersey Pine Barrens are another favorite ecosystem. “I love canoeing the small rivers in southern NJ (how I spent my undergraduate weekends when I wasn’t rock-climbing!). I love the upland forests dominated by pines and oaks and the Atlantic white cedar swamps and bogs,” says Ann, “A wild and fascinating place - especially in the 1960s and 70s.” Such perceptions helped shape Ann’s fascination with the changing role of fire in ecosystems. Ann reminds us that “Forestry and Fire Science are, above all, social sciences because people care about forests and have opinions about their management. You may be the best scientist in the world, but if you can’t speak to the concerns of the public, you will get nowhere in having your science findings implemented on the ground. The biophysical science part is the easy bit - it’s the human dimensions of land management that are difficult, and can often change abruptly. One escaped fire that causes a civilian fatality means that you might lose that tool for a long time. ”

Ann sees such challenges for fire scientists and managers in our region. “While the North Atlantic region has several kinds of ecosystems (oak savannah, pine barrens, even meadows) that depend on fire, its use is hindered by dense populations, critical transportation infrastructure, and issues of air quality. And a public that still often sees fire as undesirable and not the best tool for restoration. Re-introducing and keeping fire as a part of these ecosystems will only get more difficult.” To help address these challenges, Ann has dedicated her teaching career to infusing knowledge, curiosity, and a passion for fire in a generation of land managers, scientists, and environmental leaders. In the words of Erin Lane, co-founder and coordinator of the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange, “Ann’s skills are exceptional, but her willingness to get outside and experience science is what sets her apart. The Northeast is fortunate to have benefited from Ann Camp’s vast knowledge, unique expertise, varied abilities, mentoring skills, teaching talents, and most importantly, unsurpassed dedication to growing future leaders.” 

At the Yale Forestry School, Ann took students to the southeastern longleaf pine forests on the annual southern forestry field trip. During these trips, Ann viewed each day as an adventure and shared her excitement for silviculture, harvesting, prescribed fire, forest health, forest administration, and other forestry issues; visited a range of mills; and explored southern culture, history, and cuisine with her students. (Ann’s co-instructor for many of these trips, Mike Ferrucci, noted that Ann told many a skeptical student that “in the South, pork is actually a vegetable.”) Knowing that classroom learning should be leavened with some practical experience, Ann found many places to visit where the local managers would let her and the students “light the woods on fire,” as prescribed burning is sometimes called. As her colleague described, “Of course after all the students had their turn, Ann would always end up with the drip torch or, even better, the tool that launches the flaming ping-pong balls. Yes, my colleague is a fire-bug!”

Many cohorts of Ann’s students credit her courses as the most important in preparing them for their management careers. Ann has high standards for her students and has been known to say, “If I give you an easy exam where you memorize facts, that won’t help you at all in the real world. When you get out of here, you will have to solve messy ecological and restoration problems. I am training you to think holistically so you can go attack the current issues facing forestry today.” These same frustrated students always return to tell her how much they appreciate what they learned in her classes. Not just the content, but the methods. In the words of Marlyse Duguid, lecturer and associate research scientist at Yale, “Ann is a remarkable scholar, but is incredibly grounded. Forestry and field ecology are messy disciplines. Ann trains her students to use the tools available, but to think critically and improve current knowledge.” As one former student articulated, Ann’s Fire Science and Policy class “pushed me to look beyond facts and think more critically about how and why society manages fire, a change that inspired me to work directly with land managers to seek answers to the many challenges faced by changing fire regimes in the United States.”

Beyond teaching, Ann’s greatest legacy to future fire scientists and managers is her incomparable mentorship. In Erin Lane’s first phone conversation with her future mentor, Ann said, “I have 100 students and I have time for you, too!” Jim Cronan, research forester with the USDA Forest Service, points to graduate research under Ann’s guidance that shaped his career in fire behavior. In Jim’s words, “Ann supported my efforts to propose a large research project with multiple academic and land management partners, an endeavor I never would have considered in my wildest graduate school dreams. It was her positive, anything-is-possible attitude that inspired me to think big and push myself hard. It was her practical knowledge of the bureaucratic labyrinth of rules and policies that made it possible to actually complete the work correctly. Her ability to help me realize my potential has been unmatched by anyone else I have worked with. I imagine that I am not alone in this regard, and there is no doubt in my mind that Ann’s overwhelming commitment to her students has created a large cadre of passionate natural resource professionals across the world whose level of achievement and self-confidence was given a big boost by Ann.” As Maryse said, “Once Ann is your mentor, you have gained a life-long ally and confidant.”

Among her achievements, Ann Camp has found teaching and mentoring the next generation of forestry and fire professionals extremely rewarding. As Mike Ferrucci describes Ann, “What I’ve learned from my friend and colleague can’t all fit into this note. But I’ll try to summarize: listen, observe, take pictures, think critically, and show your enthusiasm for learning and exploring, and your students and colleagues will prize their time with you.” The North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange is grateful to have Ann Camp’s legacy of science and teaching in our landscape.

This article was written by Amanda Mahaffey with significant contributions from Erin Lane, Marlyse Duguid, Jim Cronan,  and Mike Ferrucci. 

Tim Simmons: Conservation Ecologist with a Passion for Fire

April 26, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of habitat burns in Massachusetts. Tim Simmons, a restoration ecologist recently retired from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, had a lot to do with that first habitat burn and the decades of ecological fire since. In the densely-populated North Atlantic region, human decisions and societal norms can be seen as a significant driver of fire in our landscape. Tim Simmons has played an immense role in helping shape Massachusetts’ fire-adapted landscape - including both natural and human communities - for the better.

Tim’s passion for fire science was ignited in the 1980s while he was conducting surveys for imperiled plant and animal species. Tim observed a pattern: Some of the most imperiled species were associated with fire-influenced habitats. Right then, Tim resolved to learn as much as he could about conducting prescribed fires and the ecological effects of fire. He set about doing just that, and in doing so, helped lead the region into a new era of prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat.

“Looking back on my 30 or so years working with him,” says Dr. Bill Patterson, emeritus professor from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “I see Tim as a natural historian who knows at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot) about more different aspects of natural history than just about anyone with whom I have worked with in the field. And, he is willing to consider any reasonable management protocol to benefit a population or species, while at the same time recognizing the possible benefits and risks to other species and populations.”

This open-minded approach to habitat management was not without controversy, and the many challenges of returning ecological fire to the landscape could fill a book. Through every adventure or misadventure, “Tim was always one who was not swayed by the many obstacles we faced in those early days of getting fire back on the landscape,” says Caren Caljouw, habitat biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “He helped pave the way for the successful use of prescribed fire in a responsible manner in Massachusetts and throughout New England.”

Tim has a passion for pitch pine-scrub oak barrens and all their embedded habitats including heathlands, grasslands, savannas and coastal plain ponds and wetlands. As Tim has described, “No two sites are the same, they’ve all had different fire and land use histories, support similar biotas, are under duress from a variety of sources, and are way more complex than we can imagine.” To help deepen regional knowledge and interest in such ecosystems, Tim supported the development of programs that sponsored Master’s degree students in answering research questions and seeing their results applied to ongoing habitat management. As the regional fire manager for The Nature Conservancy’s New England region, Tim was involved in such work at many sites and calls the long-term results “striking” and “gratifying.” The impact of such work has multiplied: “Many of the results generated here in Massachusetts were exported to other states struggling with the same issues.”

The Tim Simmons approach to conservation ecology “requires patience, flexibility, and ingenuity; and thinking in ‘nature's time’ rather than ‘human time,’” says Dr. Patterson, “While working with him at Montague, I came to appreciate that the best management scheme is one that is implemented widely, but in small increments, and in every possible season of the annual cycle of nature.” Tim’s management approach also embraces a multitude of disciplines; he has been described by his colleagues as a skillful land manager, naturalist, entomologist, and fire ecologist, and as a fire practitioner with extensive knowledge of fire behavior, fire effects, and conservation biology. “I recall many days in the field where I would excitedly point out a plant or plant community’s response to fire, and Tim would not only acknowledge that but would enthusiastically expand upon that observation by sharing his understanding of the benefits of fire to a multitude of species, plants and animals, and the significance of their inter-relationships in our natural world,” says Caren, “He is always willing to share that knowledge with others.”    

This willingness to share knowledge is fundamental to the Tim Simmons approach to conservation ecology in the human dimension. Tim has given countless presentations throughout his career and has empowered planning boards, fire departments, students, and conservation-minded citizens with an increased understanding of fire ecology in the pine barrens ecosystem. Tim teaches people as naturally as he studies complex ecosystems. His passion for fire ecology is contagious, stimulating new ways of thinking in those around him. Because of this inspiring commitment, says Caren, “his contributions to prescribed fire and biodiversity conservation are tremendous.”

Tim has also been a regular instructor in a series of professional trainings on the planning and implementation of prescribed fire, hosted at the Massachusetts Army National Guard training facility with numerous partners on Cape Cod. Joel Carlson, principal with Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC, says, “Tim’s participation in wildland fire trainings in Massachusetts over the years has been of great benefit to not only the students but also his co-instructors. His wealth of knowledge related to fire ecology and prescribed fire operations has always flowed freely and in an expert manner in his usual soft spoken way. By sharing his knowledge, Tim reminds us all why we should be committed to the fire management New England’s pyrophilic natural communities.”

Members of the Southeastern Massachusetts Pine Barrens Alliance (SEMPBA) could not be more appreciative of Tim’s work in the coastal Massachusetts pine barrens landscape. A 1998 poster that hangs on the walls of the SEMPBA office, Treasures of Our Natural Heritage Coastal Plain Ponds of Southeastern Massachusetts, beautifully combines art and environment to portray this imperiled ecosystem. SEMPBA’s Sharl Heller and Frank Mand believe that this highly-effective educational illustration, which Tim helped promote, is missing only one critical element - Tim Simmons himself.

“Tim understands the importance of engaging the public in conservation,” write Sharl and Frank. Tim’s active engagement in SEMPBA, an all–volunteer organization of people concerned about the loss of globally rare habitat, was crucial in the recent formation of the Pine Barrens Regional Conservation Partnership. As Sharl and Frank have summarized, “Tim’s dedication to the preservation of the southeastern Massachusetts landscape, coupled with his ability to explain complex ecosystems to lay people, has simultaneously educated and inspired us to keep moving forward against huge challenges. In the face of continuing and increasing pressure to develop these precious resources, we need more Tims, Tim Times Two-Hundred.”

Tim himself sees opportunities to continue learning about fire. “When burning was a novelty instead of a well-established management practice thirty years ago, there was much more quantitative monitoring occurring,” Tim says, “One goal of every burn should be: what do we want to learn from this burn?” Tim also highlights the need to educate regulators responsible for air quality as smoke becomes increasingly important as an issue. “We need research to quantify prescribed fire emissions and their contribution to air quality impacts and emissions trade off models to address these perceptions and reverse the trend to try to reduce prescribed burning because we really need to be doing much, much more if the declining habitats and their dependent species are going to be conserved.”

As Dr. Patterson has learned, “Conflicts arise. Nothing is perfect. But doing nothing is often worse than doing something, so long as you do not do "something" to *everything* all at once! I firmly believe in this management approach, and I do not think I would have come that appreciation had it not been for the opportunity to work with people like Tim!”

When asked what advice he would share with the next generation of fire scientists and managers, Tim shared the following: “Like the proverbial hammer wielder to whom all problems are nails, fire practitioners must understand that fire is a complex process and it interacts with many other variables and the answer to all conservation questions is not always a drip torch.” If we follow the example of Tim Simmons, we will continue learning about and thoughtfully stewarding these complex, fire-adapted ecosystems and the communities that call them “home.”

This article was written by Amanda Mahaffey with significant contributions from Tim Simmons, Bill Patterson, Caren Caljouw, Sharl Heller, Joel Carlson, and Frank Mand.

One Fire Day: Neil Gifford - Albany Pine Bush Preserve

This month's story is brought to you by Neil Gifford, Conservation Director for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission and NAFSE Community Representative. Neil describes their journey towards implementing growing season prescribed fires and the challenges and successes along the way. Enjoy, and thanks Neil!

A New Rx: Creating safer and more effective fires in the WUI

After decades of suppression, implementing ecologically meaningful fire in the Albany Pine Bush urban landscape was particularly challenging until we modified how and when we implemented prescribed burns.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission began using prescribed fire in 1991 with the guidance of The Nature Conservancy and the watchful cooperation of the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. The goals were to restore globally-rare, inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and recover the endangered Karner blue butterfly. Similarly to many other parts of the Northeast, spring and fall dormant season fires were most numerous, and therefore believed to be the most beneficial to our conservation goals. However, decades of accumulated fuels and flammable pine barrens plants made dormant season prescribed fires intense and flashy, commonly producing rapid rates-of-spread and flame lengths of 10-30 feet.

Despite this fireline intensity, few of these fires resulted in severity sufficient enough to reduce invasive woody growth, consume litter and duff, expose mineral soil, or foster recruitment of native grasses and wildflowers needed by the Karner blue. This behavior, coupled with the complexity of burning in a heavily developed landscape, meant individual burns needed to be small (2-10 acres) to ensure safe operations and 100% mop-up by dark. Small burns proved feasible, but resulted in limited contiguous burned acres in any given year and little benefit in fuel reduction or habitat restoration at the desired scale.

After a small escape during a dormant season fire in 1999, it became clear that we needed to find a more effective way to approach our fire management program. Specifically, we needed to increase fire severity (aka reaction intensity) by reducing rates-of-spread and increasing residence time. Considering that growing season fires occurred periodically in the past, and that UMass-Amherst research showed woody shrub vulnerability to post leaf-out fires, we suspected growing season treatments might be effective for our purposes. However, we doubted our ability generate the fire behavior we desired as well as appropriately manage smoke in the growing season given our typical summer weather and the live fuel moisture that comes with it. The 1999 escape led to changes in the program, including a decision to mechanically rearrange dense barrens fuels as a pretreatment to dormant season fire. These changes brought about an interesting hypothesis. Could burning these mechanically-treated areas after green-up generate the fire behavior and range of effects we were looking for?

Pre and Post mowing June 2003 &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp;&nbsp;

Pre and Post mowing June 2003                                           

To investigate this potential, we teamed up with the New York Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They were able to use their hydroaxe to mow an eight-acre scrub oak thicket in June 2003. On July 29, we attempted our first growing season “mow+burn” treatment on one half of the treated acres. With light winds and relative humidity in the high 30s, we set a test fire to observe combustion, consumption and smoke behavior (to ensure appropriate lift and dispersal). Considering the fuel arrangement within the unit, it was not expected to result in either significant combustion or consumption. With nearly two months regrowth, the live-to-dead ratio was approximately 1:3 with a 24 to 36 inch resprouting shrub layer (primarily scrub oaks and heaths). The fire behavior was favorable, and in fact the fuels in the test site burned extremely well. Topography proved to be the main factor influencing fire behavior, and with ROS at the maximum acceptable limits, the test fire was extinguished. While the active flaming front was easily put out, the scrub oak mowing slash continued to smolder for over an hour. It was apparent that while we achieved prolonged residence time, we had not reduced the ROS.  

On July 31, with light winds (1-5 mph) and higher RH (upper-40s), we again attempted to burn these 4 acres. Following improvements to the 8-10 foot firebreak, raked to mineral soil, ignition began at 12:30 p.m. Fire spread and behavior was favorable, and the fuels burned very well, but rates of spread were much slower than we experienced on the 29th. Flame lengths were ~20 feet for the head fire and 2-4 feet for the backing and flanking fires, respectively. Considering this was an experiment, ignition proceeded cautiously, and it took two hours to ignite the four-acre site using narrow strip/head fires progressively across the unit. To expedite ignition in subsequent growing season mow+burn treatments, ignition incorporated multiple, simultaneous parallel flanking fires. Burning under higher relative humidity (40-55%) also allowed us to use unmowed fuels and the associated moisture of extinction to help slow and/or stop the flaming front. Without mowing slash, advancing fires would quickly diminish or extinguish altogether.

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    Headfire: 15-20’ flame length (not to be confused with flame height)

Headfire: 15-20’ flame length (not to be confused with flame height)

In the past, untreated pine barrens fuels would not carry growing season fire under approved prescriptions. In comparison, these mow+burn fires resulted in approximately 90% consumption of all fuels. The cured slash drives fire behavior, generating heat sufficient to preheat and ignite both dead and live fuels. The anticipation of more difficult smoke management did not materialize. Due to the moisture content of live fuels, we expected growing season burning to generate more eye-level smoke than dormant season fires. However, the exact opposite was observed as combined radiative and convective heat generated sufficient vertical lift to adequately disperse smoke.

Relative to both dormant season fires and untreated growing season burns, this and many subsequent growing season mow+burn treatments met or exceeded our objectives. Specifically, the technique has proven effective in largely eliminating mowed slash, reducing litter and duff, and exposing mineral soil. Post-season evaluations suggest several growing seasons are necessary for woody shrubs to recover from the combined “double stress” of being mowed and burned in a single growing season. The reduced shrub canopy provided for increased grass and wildflower cover. Mature pitch pine mortality was high with the initial four-acre burn, with 50% (10 trees) completely senescent one year after the burn. We were able to reduce this mortality to 13% in subsequent treatments by leaving an approximately six-foot buffer of unmowed fuels around pitch pine trees. Lastly, burning under higher humidity in the growing season allowed for the safe use of light wind speeds (0-2mph), and when combined with better smoke dispersal, provided more in-prescription burn days. This allowed us to successfully burn adjacent units over the course of the burn season and create larger contiguous burned areas, more characteristic of the historic fire regime. This ultimately reduced fuels and improved wildlife habitat at a meaningful scale.

Since implementing this technique in 2004, we have not only increased our annual area burned, but we have observed many significant ecological benefits. In addition to the good response of on-site native grasses and wildflowers, these treatments enabled post-burn lupine (Karner blue butterfly obligate host plant) interseeding.  Exposing mineral soil stimulated abundant pitch pine recruitment, which had been rarely observed following repeated dormant season fires. Wildlife response has also been significant with dramatic increases in Karner blue butterfly populations and abundant young forest/shrubland birds including American woodcock, prairie warbler, field sparrow, and brown thrasher. Several species of rare obligate pine barrens moths and butterflies have been rediscovered in these sites after nearly 20 years of presumed extirpation.

In the long-term, we anticipate that growing season mow+burn will help restore fire-suppressed pitch pine-scrub oak barrens. We anticipate a 10-year average fire frequency maintenance regime, using a mix of dormant and growing season fire. The new, two-phased prescription may have been just what the doctor ordered for conserving Albany’s globally-rare pitch pine-scrub oak barrens and recovering endangered wildlife, ultimately maintaining a condition worthy of its National Natural Landmark status.

23 Days Post-burn

23 Days Post-burn

42 Days Post-burn

42 Days Post-burn

One Fire Day: Tom Gerber - New Jersey Forest Fire Service

This month's story, "The Kings Grant Fire," comes from Tom Gerber, Section Warden for the NJ Division of Forestry, Forest Fire Service. Tom has had a long history fighting fires and managing prescribed fires in NJ and is one of NAFSE's Community Representatives. Here, he relates a memorable fire from 1986.

Tom Gerber on recent November 2015 field trip

Tom Gerber on recent November 2015 field trip

On May 5, 1986, Evesham Twp, Burlington County NJ, NJ Forest Fire Service Section B-1, wardens Tom and Paul Gerber returned to their station in Medford from a small forest fire in the Kings Grant Section of Evesham with Wildland Engines B-1 and B-24. At approximate 5 p.m., the lookout in the Medford Fire Tower reported a huge column of smoke coming from the Golf Course Links at Kings Grant near #5 Crown Royal Parkway.This wildfire was burning in dense Pinelands fuel that had not burned since 1968. To compound the problem, it had been developed with single and multi-family housing units in 1980 at very high densities. This 25-acre wildfire would go on to consume five, 200,000 dollar dwellings and require 15 wildland engines, 2 water tenders, 3 tractor plows, 3 single engine aircraft drop planes, and 50 firefighters from the State Forest Fire Service to control. Structure fire departments from Evesham Fire, along with fire engines from all of southern Burlington and Camden Counties, responded to our call for help. This incident was a modern day wake-up call for wildland-urban interface fire in the NJ Pine Barrens. The 80's era re-awoke awareness of the risks in the wildland-urban interface. There had not been many scares like this since 1963 and 1977, both nationally and in NJ. This Kings Grant fire followed the devastating 1985 Florida fire season, so the Evesham Fire Rescue Chief was able to develop an 8 million dollar fire district with a career staff of 30 uniformed fire fighters as a result of this fire. Chief Lowden also became a voting member of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). 

One Fire Day: Peter Grima - MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

For this installment, Peter Grima gives us an inside look at a burn Dr. Bill Patterson conducted on his birthday back in 2007: "The Birthday Burn". Peter Grima was the very last graduate student that Dr. Patterson took on at UMass, completing his M.S. in Forestry in 2009.  He now works as a Service Forester for the Mass. Dept. of Conservation & Recreation in northern Berkshire County, substituting spruce-fir and rich-mesic forests in place of the pitch pine woods of his graduate years.

Dr. Bill Patterson with drip torch.

Dr. Bill Patterson with drip torch.

The Birthday Burn

On July 2, 2007, there were many things I had not yet experienced.  As I donned my Nomex that morning, I was years away from owning a home, just a month away from becoming a father, and only hours away from taking part in my first full-fledged growing season, woodland burn.  I had lit off my inaugural share of dormant season grassland and scrub oak, but this was the first “in the woods” summer burn in my favorite inland sandplain at the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area in western Massachusetts, where I could finally ascertain the interplay of litter and shrub fuels, and how one utilizes the “paintbrush” of prescribed fire – the drip torch –to tame the burn and keep things from escalating into the pitch pine canopy.There are three important details to report about that day: 1) The burn boss was Dr. Bill Patterson, understated grandfather of prescribed fire in Massachusetts, and also my graduate advisor; 2) It was Bill’s 62nd birthday; and 3) There was a component of quaking aspen – a “clone” – in the overstory at one end of the burn unit.     This last detail may seem inconsequential, but for anyone who has suffered any measure of time with Bill (and I mean that in the kindest and most respectable way, for “suffer” is a word he himself has used) had probably heard about his epic battles against Populus tremuloides in the wilds of Minnesota’s Lake Itasca State Park during his PhD years, tales of being soaked with 2,4-D (yes, Agent Orange) and of the “millions of stems per acre” that invariably grew back, seemingly out of spite, forging thenceforward a potent and enduring adversarial relationship between Dr. Patterson and all things Populus. The second detail is critical because I distinctly recall a noticeable gleam in Bill’s eye that morning, as if he meant to make that day count more than most, to scoff at mortality and aspen clones and leave his mark indelibly on the landscape through the medium of fire.  His muted fervor was heightened by the addition of the Cape Cod National Seashore outfit (and their engine) to our motley crew of researchers, students, biologists and state workers. In retrospect, the fire behavior that day was more or less typical of a growing season burn in scrub oak fuels.  It was a hot fire with intermittent, semi-explosive torching of live scrub oak foliage, and even some short-lived “crown fires” in scrub oak, which was all new and exciting to me, but hardly the stuff of epic tales.  Even so, I knew this small triangle of woodland would prove to be special, not just because of its role in marking the nativity of our burn boss, but because of a suite of ecological indicators observed in its wake.  In short order, some of the mop-up crew discovered a box turtle that had somehow survived the burn (or at least that’s the version I have stored in my memory…).  And in my own mop-up endeavors, I flushed a whippoorwill, seemingly unfazed by the flames, from the interior of the unit.  Lastly, living just a few miles away, I had volunteered to look for smokes the following morning, and I discovered several families of grouse, fledglings in tow, happily foraging in the black, seemingly thankful for our labors.  All this within half a day of the burn! More notable than these elements of instant gratification have been the insights gained in the intervening years while revisiting my old haunts, following through as a student of fire to learn from the best experts – the fire-adapted species – just how each one has fared in the wake of our meager approximations.  Each time, I am forced to grin as I fondly recall Bill’s wily smirk against a backdrop of flaming scrub oaks, the heat from which was enough to top-kill just about all of the aspens, and the vigorous sprouting of which was enough to overcome the nearly-matched vigor of the aspen suckers.  The aspen clone, at least that small one encompassed within the birthday burn, is now an open-canopied scrub oak glade within a greater oak-pine woodland.  It is a small victory, much delayed, but we can now say that, at least on that day, Bill won.

One Fire Day: Dr. Inga P. La Puma - North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange

For this installment, Dr. Inga La Puma relates her experience in the Spring of 2015 when she participated in her first prescribed fire.

I have always considered myself to be the shining example of 'the problem'. A fire scientist who has never been on a fire, prescribed or otherwise. Then I got the call in March from Dr. Nick Skowronski, U.S. Forest Service. Did I want to come out and help with a research burn? No question! I looked forward to observing not only a prescribed fire in the New Jersey Pinelands where I had done my fire history and modeling research at Rutgers, but to observe one in which numerous scientists from the University of Edinburgh, the USFS, Tomsk State University (in Russia) and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) were collecting data on embers, smoke, and weather. This block had been burned two years before with the same equipment, and the videos I had seen were impressive. After modeling fire and forest disturbance for four or five years, I couldn't WAIT to get out in the field again.  
The morning arrived cold and clear, with a slight northwest breeze. Perfect! I met Mike Gallagher, U.S. Forest Service and Dr. Bob Kremens, RIT, at 7 a.m. at Lucille's restaurant in the middle of the Pinelands (mmm pie) and we followed Mike out to the side of the road. The sand roads at the entrance area looked familiar. I was sure I had been close during my field work measuring trees seven years ago - but this is the Pinelands, so it probably just looked the same. I was worried about wearing a coat and if it could fit under the PPE shirt I was given and if I could wear a hat under my helmet. I was glad I brought lined leather work gloves because people were complaining left and right about freezing hands. I was assigned to help Bob put up small smoke towers throughout the burn plot, and off we went.  Nick arrived and set up all the cameras while the ember people from Edinburgh set up their sites to catch embers. Finally the New Jersey Forest Fire Service (NJFFS) wildland firefighters arrived and began to burn out the section next to the research plot. I watched them confidently putting fire on the ground with their drip torches and regular radio communication around the plots. I asked how they knew when the burn was done, and one of the guys said, "When the smoke stops!" Oh...right! Duh. Well, then the section warden chimed in with more detail on how all of the edges may come together and you might see a convective column in the middle of the plot. That was the kind of answer I was looking for!  

Once the side plot was burned out, it was time to burn the research plot, but we had to wait for the plane with the infrared equipment to get close enough to begin. Finally, the plane arrived and Nick told all the researchers to stay put in the safe zone. The crew lit the research plot, and as I watched the fire burn with interest, the researchers and fire crew seemed unimpressed. It was a slow crawling ground fire that even seemed to skip some areas. I believe many of the crew were disappointed that the fire didn't burn as hot as it had last time, but Nick pointed out that we were proving that prescribed fire works, and that the earlier burn had done its job by knocking down fuels.  

Nick gave the OK for me to walk with Dr. Ken Clark, U.S. Forest Service, down the side of the burn and as small as it was, I still felt the heat to the point where I wanted to step back. I got a face-full of smoke that for some reason was unexpected to me as a novice, although afterwards I was laughing at myself for it!  I finished out the day helping Ken by clipping shrub plots outside the burn and checking out his main weather tower. We walked back to check out the burn and noted small areas that looked unburned within the plot as well as an absence of personnel. We finally found everyone on the side of the sand road that divided the plot talking about how things had gone that day. I spoke with Tom Gerber, NJFFS, about coming out to help and observe more fires. Did I want to do this more often? Heck, yes! I came home totally energized from a gorgeous day outside amongst the trees and fire. I was amazed at how the knowledge of generations of fire managers in the NJFFS and the fire scientists from across the Atlantic could be combined to pull off a research-based prescribed fire, where everyone could learn, including me! I am not sure how often I can get out there - and fires don't seem to care much about my kids’ dance and piano class schedules, but still, I sincerely hope that my first fire was the beginning of many in the years to come.

Focused Conference Calls: Fire in New England Oak Ecosystems

In April 2015 we hosted a focused conference call to investigate the current research questions on this topic. Here we've posted the summary of that call. The conversation on this subject shall continue with research briefs, webinars, and an oak/fire capstone workshop organized by NAFSE in New England in June 2016.

Managers in northern New England want to learn about the fire ecology of oak-dominated ecosystems and the implications for land management decisions. The purpose of this call was to catalyze conversation between managers and researchers to analyze current issues and information, to understand how that information is being used, and outline what questions still remain. The call focused on a site in the Green Mountain National Forest called the Dome as an example of an area with a known fire history in an oak-dominated forest, but where a transition towards maple forest is evident.

Many managers want to identify areas appropriate for fire reintroduction and understand the research behind current fire management practices in oak-dominated systems. Research on fire in oak forests in New England is limited; however, some research from other regions may be applicable here as well.

This discussion focused on the current range and optimal conditions for oak forests. Oak sites in New England are typically located on thin soils where competition is limited and where fire may have been present in the past. Sunlight and aspect (south and mostly west in this case) may have influenced oak persistence on the Dome site. It was noted that an area of oak with repeated hot burning after the clearing in the 1800’s returned as hickory in a more southern site. Burning once every 3-5 years promotes hickory and causes oak mortality. Oak and hickory both grow after disturbance, but oak tends to grow faster and hickory ends up in the understory. An area near the Vermont site was subject to a recent burn and has returned as a beech forest.

The Dome site in Vermont is close to northern end of chestnut oak range, and there are sassafras and red pine in the site. Through an extensive oak inventory, it was found that red oak patches are found as far north as Ontario. A question that remains is: what if rare understory species don’t need fire? Maybe oak is self-perpetuating and fire is not needed on those sites. Or perhaps the understory may have been grasses and eliminated by shrub cover now due to lack of fire. Native Americans were known for burning their berry patches and ericaceous shrubs. A map from the mid-1800’s does show the area as forested.

More questions arose that need further research to be answered. Is it all soil and aspect that is producing these oak forests? Are we going to make the site more or less resilient to climate change if we utilize fire management? How do we characterize tipping points of maintenance? An adaptive management approach was suggested, with controls within ecologically sensitive areas. The group expressed that the only way to understand the variation of responses is to burn and document. Doing nothing was actually stressed as an active form of management. Some participants noted that in going forward, there should be an effort to promote diversity with the understanding that fire is not the only disturbance. There is a reluctance to try fire when we don’t know enough about the outcomes.