Why Prescribed Fire?
The Central Pine Barrens is a fire-dependent ecosystem, meaning that landscapes are not only prone to fire but are actually sustained through fire disturbance, which is required for the continued health of the system and the species within it. The absence of fire in a fire-dependent system leads to the continued accumulation of flammable natural materials (i.e., fuels) in the form of needles/leaves, branches, trees and tall shrubs. Without introducing prescribed fire to manage these conditions by safely consuming these accumulated fuels, the risk of higher intensity and more severe wildfire increases.
Prescribed fire improves the safety of communities located near or within woodlands by reducing the intensity of potential wildfires and improving the ability of firefighters to safely access and extinguish wildfires. This public safety improvement is accomplished as the prescribed fire consumes fuels in the understory and then removes the overgrowth of shrubs and high-density small trees. This process breaks up the availability and continuity of the fuels, reducing the potential for wildfire spread and increases in intensity. Prescribed fire also creates more space among and between existing trees, which improves the ability to access and the forest to address any potential wildfires that ignite. Using prescribed fire to mitigate the risk of wildfire is an effective and encouraged tactic identified within the Central Pine Barrens Commission’s Land Use Plan as it is a tool successfully implemented, often used and widely supported by numerous agencies and landowners around the country and the world.
In addition to reducing wildfire risk, the cumulative results of prescribed burning include many ecological benefits by facilitating a shifting mosaic of habitat types and successional stages on the Central Pine Barrens’ landscape. Properly implemented prescribed fire management strengthens ecosystem resistance and resiliency to pests, disease and fluctuations in weather and climate; increases native species diversity and abundance; ensures suitable and improved habitat for wildlife, including rare and endangered flora and fauna; retains species-specific fire adaptations; and improves and safeguards the ecosystem services, especially the filtration and recharge of water to Long Island’s aquifer system, which provides 100% of Long Island’s drinking water.
Prescribed Fire for Community Benefit
The Central Pine Barrens region of Long Island exemplifies the term Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), which refers to an area where the built environment meets or intermingles with a natural environment. The continuing increase in development near or within these natural areas places these neighborhoods at a greater risk to loss and damage to property and homes from wildfire. In the Central Pine Barrens, wildfire suppression is a necessary tactic administered by fire departments to quickly extinguish wildfires and ensure public safety in the highly developed wildland urban interface of this forested ecosystem. These wildfire suppression tactics have directly protected neighborhoods from wildfire damage by confining and minimizing natural and human-caused fires, which has inadvertently increased hazardous fuel accumulations that increase the risk of future wildfire outbreaks.
Without prescribed fire and forest management, the continued buildup of forest fuels not only poses risks to Central Pine Barrens habitats but endangers the safety of communities by creating fuel that potentially feeds future wildfires. For example, fire suppression within the Central Pine Barrens has led to fuel buildup on the forest floors with many fuels poised to transport fire to the treetop canopy. From a firefighting perspective, the advancement of fire to the treetop canopy, also described as a “crown fire,” burns with such intensity that it is extremely difficult to control. This crown fire risk demonstrates the need for prescribed fire to reduce fuel accumulation in the Central Pine Barrens. Without consistent prescribed fire management, the risk of large, uncontrolled wildfires endanger, residents, first responders and property.
Long Island is centrally located in the region of the United States that has the highest Lyme disease prevalence. Additionally, Long Island currently has a number of tick species in significantly high density and abundance of which a high proportion carry a number of tick-borne diseases including but not limited to Lyme, Babesiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Ehrlichiosis, Powassan, and STARI. The threat of tick-borne disease exposure creates significant risk to human health and safety as well as presenting a drawback to the enjoyment of the Central Pine Barrens and neighboring areas. Prescribed fire directly reduces the tick populations thereby reducing the likelihood of human exposure to ticks and the potential to contract Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Long Islanders depend on the health and maintenance of our sole source aquifer for drinking water. Without proper forest management, the ability to replenish this source with clean, filtered water, an ecosystem service provided by the vegetation and microbia inhabiting the sandy soils of the Central Pine Barrens is altered. Lack of fire disturbance is changing the species composition of our forests from pine to oak, which in turn could potentially reduce recharge to the aquifer by increasing evaporation and reducing percolation. Further, the increase in oak dominance enriches the forest floor with duff and litter. This organic matter accumulation increases the water holding capacity, further driving the ecosystem from a pine to oak dominated system.
Fire suppression thus calls for the need to substitute wildfire disturbance and fuel reduction effects with prescribed fires on the landscape. The application of prescribed fire in this landscape, under carefully controlled conditions and in carefully selected locations, is a component of good ecosystem management and stewardship which help ensures the safety of neighborhoods and businesses populating the Central Pine Barrens as well as firefighters who work within it. Prescribed fire implementation also promotes the restoration and maintenance of habitats that support compatible outdoor recreational uses, such as hiking, hunting, equestrian activities and bird watching, all of which contribute to community economic growth.
*Do you live in the Wildland-Urban Interface? Check out our work with the FIREWISE wildfire protection to learn how to best protect yourself, your property & community.
Prescribed Fire for Ecological Benefit
It is widely recognized that a variety of driving forces and modifying disturbances are responsible for creating and maintaining the Central Pine Barrens’ ecological structure and function, including, but not limited to, fire occurrence, severe weather events, historic timber and cordwood harvesting and forest pest infestations. Without implementing prescribed fire and disturbance management, forested areas will change to more shade and moisture tolerant species and be less resistant to invasive species. This transition leads to the loss of wildlife habitat quality needed for rare and threatened species currently inhabiting the region.
The Central Pine Barrens resists transition to deciduous forest species (e.g., oak, beech, hickory) as a result of the reinforcing interactions of droughty, nutrient-poor soils with highly flammable, fire-adapted vegetation and periodic fire disturbance. Fire is a critically important disturbance regimen, as it maintains a xeric environment that is unsuitable for the development of mesic hardwood forest communities. As a result, fire ensures the environment remains conducive to supporting the vegetation and wildlife species which create this globally rare and locally distinct ecosystem.
Currently, Central Pine Barren forests show signs of ecological imbalance in their structure, regeneration, and overall health due to fire suppression and lack of management. The forest mainly consists of a high density of same-age trees, while a forest with age variation is more resistant, resilient and healthy. High tree density results in higher individual competition for resources (space, light and nutrients), stressing the system, reducing wildlife habitat quality and resiliency to pests and disease. Without fire to cull out declining vegetation, thin the forest and consume duff, canopies have closed, shading out early successional species and increasing organic matter development, all of which is driving transitions from historically xeric (dry) to mesic (moist) ecosystem. If this trajectory continues, forest compositions of the Central Pine Barrens will continue to change as the native plants that thrive on quick draining, low nutrient, sandy soil conditions will not be able to compete with shade tolerant species in soils with higher organic matter, moisture and nutrients. Prescribed fire is an important tool to counter this trajectory while improving forest health and sustain critical wildlife habitat in the Central Pine Barrens for the amazing assemblage of species that make up this system. Fire disturbance is needed to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services while reducing the buildup of organic material and fuels that lead to increased wildfire risk. Prescribed fire is also beneficial in helping to ensure that the Central Pine Barrens is more resilient and adaptable to stressors of global change and climate uncertainty, as well as creating more sustainable carbon storage and sequestration dynamics.
To learn more about the prescribed fire management program email email@example.com or call (631) 288-1079.