Bringing Fire to the Piedmont Landscape

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator and Jared Judy, Flintwoods Preserve Land Manager

The field of warm season grasses on March 29, 2011, just prior to burning. Image by Derek Stoner.

A new type of land managment tool is arriving in the Piedmont of Delaware, and this is one of the most simple techniques with which to revitalize grassland habitats:  Fire!

This past Spring, on March 29, for the first time in known memory a prescribed fire was conducted in the Piedmont region of Delaware.  The challenge of managing a fire and timing it safely so as not to damage surrounding habitats is crucial.  When the right conditions arrived in late March, the call was made for the fire crew to assemble and get to work.

Delaware Nature Society Land Steward Dave Pro lays down a line of fire using a drip torch, igniting the dry grasses behind him. Image by Derek Stoner.

Prescribed fire specialists from the Delaware Forest Service teamed up with staff from Flintwoods Preserve (led by land manager Jared Judy) and Delaware Nature Society Land and Biodiversity staff to conduct a prescribed fire on a 6-acre planted plot of native warm season grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indian Grass) at Coverdale Farm Preserve.

Immediately after the last flames died out, the field resembles a black landscape of scorched ground. Image by Derek Stoner.

The burn went extremly well, and in less than 20 minutes, 6 acres of dried grasses were reduced to black ashes and a patch of ground that looked empty.  The ashes would help fertilize the growth of grasses from the rootstocks underground, and within just a few days the field would turn green and lush with  new plant life.

The idea for this prescribed fire came from Jared Judy, who brings extensive experience with this managment technique from his time in Texas working as a land manager of  extensive grassland habitat.  Jared writes:

I received my training in prescribed fire along the Gulf Coast of Texas with the Nature Conservancy.  Nationally, the Nature Conservancy has adopted the standards of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) for their prescribed fire operations, allowing them to partner with state and federal agencies to conduct burns.  Land managers and conservation staff within the Texas chapter are encouraged to obtain NWCG certification and training.  When a land manager had units on their preserve ready to burn they would put out the call and the other land managers would travel from around the state to assist with the fire.  It was termed the “fire militia”, as we all had other job responsibilities but understood that if we wanted to burn on our preserve we had to be there to assist others. 

When discussing warm season meadow establishment and management, prescribed fire must be part of the conversation.  The scale of fire will be very different on the Delaware Piedmont than it was from the Texas Coast, but its role in meadow management should remain undiminished.  Without the use of fire in our meadows on the Piedmont, their diversity and usability for wildlife will never reach its full potential. 

Prescribed fire associations, a collection of land managers and property owners interested in using fire as a management tool, are becoming common in many areas of the Midwest.  The establishment of such an association allows for each landowner involved to dip into a collective pool of resources and personnel to accomplish a burn on their property.  Also, grants are available to such associations to build an equipment cache to be shared among the members.  Developing a burn association in the Delaware Piedmont could be an effective way to reintroduce fire into the system on a broad scale.

Enjoy this fascinating video of the whole process of the prescribed fire at Coverdale Farm Preserve– you can hear the fire crackle and almost feel the heat!    And stay tuned for an update of how the field re-generates immediately after the fire.

1 thought on “Bringing Fire to the Piedmont Landscape”

  1. very educational & amazing, thanks for sharing! I have witnesses this technique in Grand Teton National Park,WY and now in little ole’ DE……..yeah!

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