Prescribed Fire at Yale Myers Forest
Authored by Elizabeth Himschoot (MEM candidate, Class of 2021)
While some students might think spring break is for late mornings and relaxation, some opportunities are too good to pass up when they present themselves, even with an early morning start. Prescribed burns are weather-dependent and can be difficult for students to attend during the normal academic calendar. So, after a short, early morning drive to the Yale Myers Forest, our team of student volunteers strapped water tanks to our backs and completed a thorough safety briefing. Under the direction of trained professionals, we then slowly ignited a meadow, contributing to its nutrient cycling and habitat diversity while selectively managing for Oak and Hickory regeneration.
As with all prescribed fires, the morning started by gathering supplies and doing a site check to ensure the safety of burn participants and the surrounding forest systems. Under the supervision and instruction of Joe Orefice, director of forest and agricultural operations at Yale, and Stephen Prinn, the Yale Myers Forest caretaker, we completed a test burn on an old homestead within the forest. This test burn was useful in helping all the students learn and review the steps in preparing for and managing prescribed fires. It also helped us see how the fire would behave under the weather conditions that day.
Soon we were working side by side marking a control line around the prescribed area by scraping the organic matter that could be used as fire fuel and creating a line of barren ground. Using a back-burning fire, a fire that will burn into the prevailing wind, we expanded our control line to reduce the risk of spot fires on un-prescribed land. Once the back-burning fire was ignited we slowly moved across the field lighting fore-fires which moved in the direction of the wind and would increase the speed of the back burn as the heat drew it in. All of which was advised and narrated by Orefice who provided us information on safety, ecology, and land history as the fire crept along until the whole meadow was covered in a thin layer of ash.
While this was not something I had planned to do during my time at F&ES, it was a truly humbling experience. I was awarded a glimpse into the living history and knowledge inherent in planning and implementing a prescribed burn. For thousands of years Native Americans used fire to help create the diverse mosaic of forest, grassland, and meadow ecosystems that we see today. Now, foresters all over the country, including in national parks, use prescribed fires to maintain high value ecosystems and habitats.
Fire can be scary, dangerous, and full of destruction, but it can also spark new life by germinating seeds and releasing key nutrients back into the soil. In a few months you won’t be able to tell there was ever a fire, but the enriched habitat and species diversity will be there to tell the tale.