Several tools help create, restore, and maintain the diversity of habitats for species and communities of conservation need as identified in the Commonwealth’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). These include wood product harvest, mowing and mulching, invasive plant management, and prescribed fire. Prescribed fire is often used for continued management, after initial restoration is completed.
Many people are surprised to hear about the fundamental role that fire plays in shaping the Massachusetts landscape. While we can generalize as to where many natural communities are found based on stable climate conditions, soils, and topography; there are specialized communities and habitats influenced by periodic disturbances such as fire. Numerous plants and animals show specific adaptations to living in fire influenced environments.
During the early 20th century and up until recently fire exclusion from all natural lands was general policy throughout Massachusetts and the entire United States. Land managers thought that fire interfered with forest development and brought destruction. Fire exclusion resulted in the decline of numerous species, the buildup of heavy and often hazardous fuels, and the degradation of entire ecosystems. Today, land managers recognize the importance of prescribed fire.
Historically, fire played a fundamental role in shaping a patchwork of open habitats and forested communities across the Massachusetts landscape. For example, the barrens vegetation associated with glacial deposits of deep and excessively well drained sand and gravel tend to be associated with relatively short fire return intervals. Many shrubs such as low-bush blueberry sprout quickly after fire from fire resistant roots and underground stems and branches, pitch pine and oak trees have thick protective bark, and wildflowers have heat resistant seeds that break their dormancy after fire. Several of these specialized communities occur primarily in coastal areas and farther inland in association with major river valleys. Historically, fires were likely caused by lightning and/or set by humans including Native people who used fire to improve routes for travel, clear areas for agriculture, harvest forest products, and maintain highly productive wildlife habitats including Heathlands, Pitch Pine Oak Barrens, and open canopy Oak-Pine Woodlands. Forest conversion for firewood consumption, building supplies, industries such as charcoaling, and agriculture followed European settlement and eventual fire exclusion in the remaining forests resulted in the decline of numerous species and the degradation of fire influenced communities and ecosystems. In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have natural communities and habitats that have evolved with fire and are best maintained with periodic burning, including some areas that are home to state- and federally-listed rare, endangered, or threatened species. Prescribed fire is used to restore and maintain these habitats.
The primary concerns for all prescribed burns involve human safety, protection of built infrastructure and protection of sensitive resources, especially if fire has been absent from an area for a period. In some cases, restoration may involve reducing pre-burn fuels by forest thinning and mowing of understory brush before fire can be re-introduced. Planning is critical for every burn. A prescribed burn plan developed by a qualified burn boss must be in place before a burn is conducted. Firebreaks and other site preparations are made. Fire behavior, fuels, and weather are monitored throughout the burn, and if the prescription parameters are exceeded the fire is “shut down”. Permits are required from the town fire chief and the regional office of DEP’s Air Quality Section. The burn is carried out by a skilled crew under the direction of a qualified burn boss. The local fire chief can of course stop the burn at any time. There are public information meetings in most areas before prescribed burning is introduced. Abutting landowners are notified of fire dates, reasons, and expectations for the burn season.
Approximately 40% of the MESA-listed plant and animal species in Massachusetts benefit from the conditions created and maintained by fire. New England Blazing Star, American Chaffseed, Purple Milkweed, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Frosted Elfin Butterfly are just a few of the rare species that benefit from prescribed burning. Prescribed burns improve habitat for huntable wildlife such as Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and American Woodcock and a multitude of declining species such as Whip-poor-will. Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, and New England Cottontail also benefit from the increases in fruit, mast, and palatable browse created after periodic fires. Current research indicates that periodic burning may also help control plant and animal parasites. Numerous natural communities benefit from prescribed burning including Sandplain Grassland, Sandplain Heathland, Pitch Pine-Scrub Oak Barren, Ridgetop Heathland, Chestnut Oak Woodland, Oak – Hickory Woodland, Calcareous Fen, and Wet Meadows.