Learning to Burn: 25 Years Managing the Albany Pine Bush
Author: Neil Gifford
Neil Gifford is the conservation director for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission (APBPC) in Albany, N.Y. A volunteer and seasonal Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission employee in 1994 and 1995, he’s been a full-time Commission employee since 1997. As conservation director he provides supervision and oversight for all aspects of biological research and management in the preserve.
FAC Net: My guess is that few people think about New York as having a wildfire problem. Can you describe the fuels and the values at risk in the area where you work, in the capitol city of Albany?
Neil: The Preserve supports inland pitch pine scrub-oak barrens, best characterized as a shrub savannah habitat. The combination of pitch pine, scrub oak, heath shrubs and prairie grass make this one of the most volatile fuel types in the northeast and capable of producing rapid rates of fire spread and 100-foot flame lengths in the dormant-season. The ecosystem is fire-dependent and historically produced wildfires annually. The Preserve’s 3,200 protected acres are a patchwork of open space that crosses three municipalities and is adjacent to major interstate highways (I-90, I-87, I-890), and billions of dollars worth of residential and commercial real estate, including one of the nation’s largest shopping malls, several high-rise nursing homes and a major university.
FAC Net: So, you’re working in challenging fuel types in a city where smoke management must be a huge issue. Has anyone ever told you that you were crazy to burn in this type of environment?
Neil: Oh, yes; once they’ve visited or seen a map of the Preserve many folks burning in more rural landscapes are often surprised that we use prescribed fire here. I started my fire career working seasonal Nature Conservancy burn crews here and in Missouri. Smoke management here is certainly much more challenging. We mitigate the risks by prescribing fewer acceptable wind directions and speeds, smaller burn units to expedite ignition and reduce smoldering, larger crews, and requiring one hundred percent mop-up. Outreach has also proved critical in reducing smoke complaints.
FAC Net: APBPC started using fire as a management tool in 1991. The story goes that after years of trying different approaches, APBP staff discovered that mowing scrub oak and following up with prescribed fire in the growing season produces the best results–for both biodiversity and fuel reduction—and is safer and more feasible than burning in the dormant season. How did you figure this out?
Neil: Serendipity and insight helped us realize the utility of single growing season mow plus burn treatments for reducing fuels and improving ecological benefits. Mowing started as a tool to simply reduce flame lengths and rates-of-spread following a small escape in 1999. The initial concept was to mow areas of dense shrub fuels and burn those areas the following spring dormant season. However, we quickly realized the slash would burn just weeks after mowing. We also knew that growing season fires occurred historically and that such fires could have ecological benefit. Our initial treatment was an eight-acre experiment, with all eight mowed and four of those burned that same growing season. The results were spectacular, eliminating the slash and nearly all of the four to six inches of litter and duff that had accumulated during decades of fire suppression, while exposing mineral soil. Fire and smoke management also benefited. Since the initial 2003 treatment the technique has been repeated on hundreds of acres. The treatment has been a benefit to the rare wildlife species, with many increasing and some reappearing after decades of being undetected.
FAC Net: APBP had an escaped prescribed burn in 1999. What happened, and what did you learn from it? Did the escape affect APBP’s credibility and its relationship with the community?
Neil: We did have an escape in April 1999, when a seven-acre dormant-season burn resulted in a sixty-five-acre wildfire. Despite a thirty-foot firebreak an unexpected wind event resulted in a spot in an area that had lightly burned two years earlier. This event taught us to further mitigate risks, improve communication systems and be better prepared for contingencies. Mechanical pre-treatments are now requisite in areas of dense pine barren fuels, dormant season prescribed fire parameters were modified and planners and crews spend more time reviewing contingency plans and communications in briefings. The event ultimately led to the single growing season mow+burn treatment described previously.
FAC Net: What advice would you give to someone trying to get a controlled burning program underway in a place like Austin or Santa Fe or San Diego?
Neil: In short, anyone interested in starting a prescribed fire program in urban landscapes should invest heavily and early in what social scientists call constituency engagement. As scientists, conservationists and fire managers we can be less prepared for this side of our work, but it is essential to a successful program. The Nature Conservancy, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the APBPC put a lot of ground work into helping elected officials, fire departments, municipal agencies and the public at large understand the wildfire risk reduction and ecological necessity of fire in the Pine Bush. This started years before the first match was struck and continues today through annual mailings, social media, TV, radio and print media and Preserve signage.