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

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

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.

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.


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