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September 30. 2012 11:46PM

Plan for healthy pine barrens in Freedom includes a dose of fire

FREEDOM — Fire is the prescription for health of the rare Ossipee Pine Barrens, where experts from The Nature Conservancy, state and federal agencies and local fire departments are conducting a series of prescribed burns this fall on 70 acres.

The Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve straddles about 4,000 acres in Freedom, Ossipee, Madison and Tamworth. Pine Barrens is a globally rare forest type only found in the northeastern United States. Open to the public, with more than seven miles of hiking trails, the Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve is the largest intact example of the ecosystem in New Hampshire.

Shaped by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago, the Pine Barrens, as they became known due to sandy, nutrient poor soils, are far from desolate.

Pine barrens are forested with pitch pine trees that have thicker bark and deeper roots than white pines. The barrens include scrub oak trees and low-bush blueberry bushes that provide habitat and food for birds and insects.

Jeff Lougee, director of stewardship and ecological management for The Nature Conservancy (TLC), said prescribed burns are essential to the health of the Pine Barrens because the burns control the growth or destroy of other competing plant species, such as white pine, which, if left unchecked, would grow taller than the pitch pines and threatened their survival. Prescribed burns also protect against wildfires and potential property damage.

“This is the last big one in the state,” he said.

As vegetation in flood-prone areas adapts to its environment, the same principle applies to pine barrens, which have, over much time, adapted to fires, said Lougee. Pitch pine, for example, has really thick bark that protects the living tissue from fire when it comes through. Fire would destroy the smaller and weaker white pine saplings and other competing vegetation.

“It reduced competition. Bark on white pine is thinner and if you run fire through, it girdles it,” Lougee said.

Prescribed burn plan

Two years of research and planning went into creating the Fire Management Plan for the Ossipee Pine Barrens. Lougee said a great deal of outreach and coordination takes place with neighboring town and fire department officials, state and federal agencies. He works very closely with homeowners who may be in the path of smoke during one of the controlled burn days. A homeowner might leave their home for a day during a burn, but Lougee said most are grateful because they realize the burn protects not only the health of the preserve, but safeguards against wildfires.

Each prescribed burn ranges in area from 10 to 100 acres, and each burn has an individual plan that includes details about weather conditions, personnel, equipment and other variables. There is so much research involved that Lougee said they can predict what the fire behavior will be under certain weather models and conditions. Fires are not set under extremely dry conditions.

TNC also coordinates timing with town officials. Once all the details are set, a trained and crew will go in and establish barriers, called fuel breaks, to limit the fire to a particular area.

Crew members in the ignition squad use drip torches and fuel — two-thirds diesel fuel to one-third gasoline — to ignite the fires.

Members are outfitted in fireproof suits, hardhats, and equipment including a portable fire shelter in the event a member is trapped in a fire. The team also has trucks equipped with water and hoses, and all-terrain vehicles.

Members of TNC’s burn teams come from all over New England to assist during a prescribed burn.

Good partnerships

Camp Calumet in Freedom, which borders the Pine Barrens Preserve, hosts thousands of children and adults throughout the year. Camp Director Paul Lindahl praised TNC officials for working closely with the camp to coordinate burns and keep everyone informed.

“They have been great neighbors. They have been right up front about the plans. We feel like a partner,” said Lindahl. “They are concerned about preserving the wildness of the preserve, but they are also concerned with protecting the neighbors. The area has had, over the past 100, 200 years, a history of fires. By creating buffer zones, they are being tremendous neighbors.”

Lougee recalled in great detail two major fires, including the latest one in 1957, where several hundred acres burned north of Ossipee Lake Road.

Prescribed burns present a learning opportunity as well for students, Lougee added. An eight-person crew for AmeriCorps assisted for more than two weeks at the site, and a team of graduate students from the University of Vermont are studying how long it takes for the birds and insects to return following a prescribed burn.

For more information about The Nature Conservancy or the Ossipee Pine Barrens, visit www.nature.org.

lmulkern@newstote.com


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