Shenandoah wildfire highlights changing views of the forest

The wildfire, which started on Rocky Mount April 16, 2016, burned for 14 days. Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park The wildfire, which started on Rocky Mount April 16, 2016, burned for 14 days. Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

“This is going to be catastrophic.”

That was Jeff Koenig’s thought on the second day the fire burned, last April 17, in Shenandoah National Park.

Koenig had first laid eyes on the flames the day before, when he pulled his truck up to Two Mile Run Overlook. It was a Saturday afternoon. A fire had been reported in a backcountry area of the park, and when he arrived at the overlook to assess the situation, he saw 30 to 70 acres on fire to the west of Skyline Drive—the winding road that squiggles north and south through the park. The flames weren’t near the drive, though; they were on a knob called Rocky Mount, accessible only by steep, rugged trails.

As the park’s fire management officer, Koenig was responsible for making an official guess about what this fire was up to. How would it behave? How big was it going to get? There were lots of variables, but one factor in particular looked ominous. “We were 10-plus days without rain,” he remembers. “Everything seemed normal except for that.”

By early Sunday morning, there were 200 acres on fire. At the end of that day, 500 acres. “It would go up a slope, hit a ridge and start down the other side,” he says. “The topography is dissected with ridges and drainages; it had a lot of room to navigate.” Fire, in other words, can move more easily through steep terrain than people can, and given the 5- to 6-foot flames, and how swiftly the fire was spreading, it wasn’t safe for firefighters to move in close.

Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park
Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

Instead, Koenig and his colleagues were scanning topographic maps for a likely place to set up defenses. Their approach was to choose places where there was already a barrier to a fire’s progression (like a creek, or Skyline Drive itself), or to build a fire line, and then try to hold the flames behind those boundaries. Park officials drew a management area of about 1,200 acres, hoping that would be the extent of the burn. They also called for backup—a Type I Incident Management Team, which marked the fire as a national incident of the highest priority.

“It was pretty obvious this was not going to be the typical fire,” says Koenig. By April 18, the fire’s third day, it had swept past the 1,200-acre management area and was burning 2,000 acres. Firefighters were pouring in to help out—including local fire departments and hotshot crews from Arizona and New Mexico. And the fire had become a big story. Locals couldn’t help but notice the smoke, and newspapers published satellite photos of the charcoal-colored burn scar, edged in orange flames.

The suppression era

The area burned in the Rocky Mount fire—which likely resulted from an illegal campfire—had not seen a wildfire in 85 years. As park superintendent Jim Northup said in an open letter he published on April 25, the fire’s 10th day: “In an area where low-intensity ground fires should naturally occur every three to nine years, the Rocky Mount area of the park has had an unnaturally high level of fuel accumulation (leaves, pine needle litter, branches and fallen trees) and was destined to burn at some point.”

A corollary: All that fuel meant a bigger, hotter fire. And when it comes to wildfires, what does “natural” actually mean? And is there a “natural” human response to fire? Over the last century and a half, people’s attitudes toward fire have changed considerably, just like our ideas about lots of other things.

In the early 1900s, when President Theodore Roosevelt was busily boosting the acreage of America’s newly formed national forests, the prevailing view was that fire had no place in the forest. Americans had been clear-cutting our woodlands for decades by then, and had finally started to realize the country’s supply of wood was not, in fact, endless. The concept of environmental conservation was just coming into the public consciousness. Forests equaled timber, and why would people want to let a valuable resource burn down?

Especially severe fires in the West—like one in 1910 that consumed 3 million acres in just a couple of days (it was called, appropriately, the Big Blowup)—drove the belief that all fire was bad. Official policy at the nascent U.S. Forest Service was to prevent fire and, when fires started, to extinguish them as quickly as possible. One forestry official in 1890 even equated frequent fires with “bad habits and loose morals.”

Though a few voices at the time did assert that fire had a useful role to play in forest ecology, pointing to the fact that Native Americans had practiced controlled burns for centuries, that science wasn’t well understood.

What’s more, public lands were not always pristine wilderness tracts. In some cases, they were lands that had already been severely mismanaged. Our local national forest, the George Washington National Forest, was so degraded when it was created in 1918 that it was known as “the lands nobody wanted.”

Current GWNF documents describe the scene in those days: “It could hardly have been called a ‘forest.’ …Clearing of steep mountain land for farming and grazing, iron ore mining, widespread and indiscriminate logging, and uncontrolled and intense wildfires in leftover logging debris had led to severe erosion and increased flooding.”

So what forests remained constituted a valuable and vulnerable resource, and where forests had been destroyed fire was seen as antithetical to the goal of regrowth. The National Park Service, established in 1916, followed the lead of the Forest Service in fighting fires aggressively. A Forest Service policy of 1932 stated all fires were expected to be put out by 10am following the day they were first reported.

Then there was the matter of public perception. Smokey the Bear appeared in 1944, and although the Smokey posters got a little more sophisticated in their design as the decades went by, their message stayed consistent. You can recite the slogan, can’t you? It was a huge PR success, and it bolstered the idea that forest fires were tragedies.

The new science

It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that official policies began to reflect a more nuanced view of fire. The Park Service began to allow “prescribed natural fires” in some areas in 1967. The Forest Service dropped the 10am policy in 1978.

What changed? Ecologists had learned more about how landscapes actually depended on fire. Since native plants had evolved with a certain frequency of naturally caused fires, they are resilient to and even rely on burns to grow and reproduce.

Lane Gibbons is an ecologist who monitors fire effects in Shenandoah. “As a forest grows,” he says, “it develops a particular structure. Nutrients and moisture cycle through the environment. A forest can grow to a point where those cycles become fixed, and a fire mixes up those resources.”

For example, in a few hours a fire can release nitrogen and phosphorus from the dead leaves where those nutrients are stored, making them available to other plants more quickly than if the leaves decomposed over a period of months. Fire can also create openings in the closed canopy of a mature forest, letting sunlight and rain reach the ground and stimulate the growth of native plants.

One tree that forest managers would like to see more of is the Table Mountain pine, a medium-sized Appalachian native whose cones are covered with sharp, curving hooks. Those cones are serotinous, meaning they contain a resin that traps the tree’s seeds inside the cone. Fire is the key that unlocks the growth cycle: It melts the resin and releases the seeds at the same time that it releases nutrients into the soil and opens the forest canopy. For the Table Mountain pine, in other words, fire’s not an enemy but an essential friend.

Fire suppression can make things harder for native species and ease the way for invasives. “Many rare and declining animals and plants are adapted to fire-maintained open conditions,” says Steve Croy, an ecologist with the GWNF. From quail to golden-winged warblers to box huckleberry to bats, lots of species up and down the food chain have evolved with fire.

To restore some of those historical conditions, managers at the national forest and Shenandoah use prescribed burns—purposefully set, low-intensity fires that are carefully planned for areas hand-picked by forest ecologists. Barry Garten, a GWNF ranger, describes how it’s done.

“Most of our fires are lit by hand with a drip torch,” he says. “It’s a mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline.” Fire managers first establish a buffer around the edge of the burn area. Then they light the area with the highest elevation, move down 15 to 20 feet and light again, and repeat. With each new ignition, the fire burns uphill to the last area that burned. “We just keep doing that all the way to the bottom of the mountain,” he says. Using this technique, “You can control the intensity.”

Croy says the forest recovers fast from a controlled burn. “Immediately after,” he says, “it’s usually blackened with gray ash, but within a couple of weeks and after a rain or two it’s turning green again with vigorous growth from sprouts and seedlings. It’s quite dramatic how fast it grows back, and the increased usage by many birds and mammals.”

At the same time that foresters were learning that fire had benefits, other constraints on fire were growing. “Wild places” were in many locations becoming less wild, as human habitation pushed more frequently into wooded areas. The pros call this the wildland-urban interface, and though the phrase conjures places such as Colorado or Montana, where vacation chalets demand expensive protection from wildland firefighters, it’s relevant here in central Virginia, too.

Tough decisions

It’s 11 months after the Rocky Mount fire, and Jeff Koenig again gazes over the burn area from the Two Mile Run Overlook. He unrolls a large map showing how the Rocky Mount fire progressed over the 14 days it burned. From a small purple area representing the day it started, April 16, a rainbow of ever-larger zones unfolds, through the red area where it was finally stopped on April 29. Koenig points out several dotted lines that show the boundaries of successive management areas—lines that the fire outran. In all, it burned 10,326 acres.

This map shows a color-coded, day-by-day progression of the fire. The blue dotted line represents the maximum management area fire officials projected for the path of the fire. Courtesy Shenandoah National Park
This map shows a color-coded, day-by-day progression of the fire. The blue dotted line represents the maximum management area fire officials projected for the path of the fire. Courtesy Shenandoah National Park

Yet it didn’t progress all the way to his final dotted line. It was put out well before it got there, sparing perhaps another 10,000 acres from the flames. Sparing—or should we say “depriving”? Did that unburned area miss out on potential ecological benefits?

Maybe. But Koenig, who’s been fighting wildfires for nearly four decades, isn’t sorry that the fire stopped where it did. Though he acknowledges that fires can help the forest, he’s careful to add, “That can’t be the only consideration. Life and property are huge.” Looking at the map, it’s obvious what he must have been seeing last April when placing those dotted lines: the park boundaries near where the fire was burning, and, just outside them, hundreds of houses.

Then, of course, there were the people called in to fight the fire: around 350 crew members from around the country. The Park Service has an explicit policy, meant to guide decision-making during fire emergencies, that values the lives of firefighters above property and resources.

What’s ironic is that a lack of prescribed burns—which help to prevent high-intensity wildfires—may put the safety of firefighters at greater risk. This year, for example, Koenig and his colleagues are planning only a handful of burns in Shenandoah and the other Park Service lands they manage in Virginia. (One of these, planned for about 90 acres in Shenandoah’s Big Meadows, will push back woody plants at the edges of the meadow, preserving the footprint of the meadow itself.)

Why the gap between the three- to nine-year fire frequency that ecologists say would keep the forest healthy, and the much lower frequency of prescribed burns carried out in both national parks and national forests? It comes down to resources.

Prescribed burns take a lot of planning. “Each burn plan needs approval,” says Koenig. A lot of personnel need to be on-site for a fire to burn safely, so Koenig has to supplement his staff of five to seven with other park employees who pull double duty, plus staff borrowed from other parks and agencies. Air-quality regulations come into play, too.

Don’t let it burn

Although the forest needs fire, forestry managers can’t do nearly the number of prescribed burns that ecologists say are optimal. What about fires that aren’t planned, that start either because of lightning strikes or (as was probably the case with the Rocky Mount fire) because of people who are careless with their campfires? Can’t those fires be allowed to burn?

At Shenandoah National Park, the answer is no. “We have a policy to do the very best we can to suppress that fire,” says Jeff Koenig, the park’s fire management officer. He and Barry Garten, a ranger at the George Washington National Forest, both shy from the words “let it burn”; Garten says it tends to draw criticism. “In the public eye, when we say ‘let burn,’ that’s a tough phrase.”

Indeed, Shenandoah’s superintendent, Jim Northup, seemed to be responding to public distress in his open letter last April. “From the beginning, the only option for the park was to manage the fire,” he wrote. “…It is important for the public to understand that allowing the fire to come to these stopping points, where safe, defensible positions have been prepared is not the same as ‘letting the fire burn’ out of control.”

Garten says the national forest does sometimes opt for “less than full containment strategy”—giving a wildfire some room to burn inside control lines, rather than keeping it as small as possible—but only if conditions are just right, and only if an unplanned fire was caused by lightning rather than humans.—E.H.

Fires can only be set in spring and fall, and fuel conditions and weather have to cooperate. “We have to find that medium between dry and wet,” says the Forest Service’s Garten. “It may not exist but on three to four days in a year.” The best years offer about three weeks of favorable days for controlled burns, but as Koenig points out, “On a good day, everybody’s competing” for the personnel and resources—national parks, national forests and the state Department of Forestry.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests manage to do about 20 prescribed burns in a typical year, treating only 12,000 to 18,000 acres of a 1.6 million-acre forest. The rest of the forest is, essentially, still deprived of fire.

A new leaf

Lane Gibbons stands at the Brown Mountain Overlook and, amid the ridges and valleys marked by last year’s fire, he finds signs of life and health.

He points to a pine tree that’s fire-scarred but clearly still alive, with a core of green needles inside a skeleton of bare branches. “Even if trees are burned,” he says, “that doesn’t necessarily kill them.”

Across the road, he easily locates three other species that survived the fire. There are oak and maple trees with new shoots emerging from their partially blackened trunks. And there is a hillside full of mountain laurel with charred branches as tall as a person, but with ankle-high growth that’s bushy and dark green.

Signs of life are sprouting at Two Mile Run Overlook. Photo by Eze Amos
Signs of recovery dot the landscape at Two Mile Run Overlook. Photo by Eze Amos

Even where trees did suffer fatalities, he says, other native species can fill the void. “A lot of times we’ll see blueberry and huckleberry come back in quite an abundance. That provides forage for wildlife.”

Watching as Gibbons examines the trees, Koenig says his initial fear of catastrophic damage hasn’t come to pass. “You realize it will come back, and it’ll come back better,” he says.

Rather than “recovery,” though, Gibbons says, it helps to think in terms of regrowth. “Natural systems are constantly in flux,” he says—if not because of fire, then wind, flooding, species succession. “It’s always changing.” The monitoring that Gibbons and his team will do over time here should contribute to an evolving understanding of how this all works, and what humans might do to become better partners to the forest.

“Fire ecology is a new profession,” says Koenig, the career firefighter.

Gibbons, the ecologist, laughs and agrees. “It’s certainly a newer field than firefighting.”

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