The Intern's Perspective
The Friends of the State Line Serpentine Barrens offers unpaid internships to undergraduates interested in environmental or communication studies. Contact Dr. Cindy Whitesel, Chair, at 610-998-0302 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Our Fall 2009 intern was Tristan Stewart, University of Maryland University College, who graduated with his degree in Environmental Management December 2009. This is Tristan's blog. (Tristan's Work Day #2 blog is in with the albums.)
Pilot Preserve, November 9, 2009
Welcome to my last blog! On Monday, November 9, I was able to observe a TNC sponsored prescribed burn at the Pilot Preserve. All I can say is wow, what an exciting day! Nothing like watching controlled chaos and professionals in action.
Prescribed (Rx) burns are necessary for the health and survival of the barrens. Historically the barrens were kept alive with natural fires set by lightning strikes. These fires would typically come about from late summer storms, sweeping through the grasslands, incinerating the grasses and keeping the invading forest at bay. Of course, these fires would burn for days, raging through wilderness only to be stopped by rain or natural firebreaks, those areas low fuel, streams, or even abrupt geological changes, like gulleys or canyons.
Today’s Rx burn was managed by burn boss, James Remuzzi (BB) of Sustainable Solutions LLC, a private natural resources consulting company. Managing a wildfire (oxymoron) is structured a lot like any emergency response situation, where leadership and position identification are important to the success of burn. All the members of the team have a specific responsibility that is assigned during the pre-burn meeting. There is a clear understanding of the hierarchy of command, which comes from individual experience levels and strong leadership.
The day began with all of us meeting at the Girl Scout Camp parking lot across from the preserve. After some familiar greetings and introductions of the newbie (meaning me), everyone fell into routine, preparing their individual gear and helping others with the equipment. The burn boss James and Deborah Landau (Code name DL) of the TNC, each took turns making phone calls to the local authorities (911) and the TNC fire manager Sam Lindblom, per the requirements of the burn permit.
The burn permit is issued by the Cecil County Health Department and in this case we were burning under permit #2009-3010. The permit contains all the information required for officials to understand the nature and purpose of the Rx burn. See below:
2. Sources of Emergency Assistance:
3. Permits and Official Notifications:
4. Neighbor Notifications:
5. Unit Description:
6. Prescribed Burn Justification:
7. Fuel and weather Prescription:
8. Predicted Fire Behavior:
9. Fire Behavior Narrative:
10. Smoke Management Plan:
11. Crew Organization:
13. Burn Duration:
14. Managing the Burn:
16. Legal Considerations:
After most of the gear was ready and the water tanks were filled, we gathered around James and his white board for the plan. The preserve is divided into two units, and today we would start in the larger northwestern unit. Each unit is mapped with letters around the perimeter for location referencing in the planning and the actual event. The team was divided into two crews of three with some floating between the two. Today’s strategy would be to split off with a group at letters A and C and burn towards each other until the fires met. Each crew is made up of a principle fire starter (FST) and a fire suppresser (FSU) on a vehicle. We communicated by two-way radio.
After reviewing the plan, which followed the burn permit to the letter, we grabbed up our gear and headed over to Unit-1. In any fire situation, water, of course, is an important tool, so James had a 500-gallon water tank on the back of his truck to supply everyone with the needed water. We were able to get the truck within about 200 feet of the unit, and this was used to supply the smaller tanks. The smaller tanks (50 and 75 gallons) were carried on either a four-wheeler or a Polaris brand off-road vehicle (think golf cart on steroids). There were also Indian Packs, flexible soft bladders that are carried back-pack style, each holding about 5 gallons of water, strategically placed around the perimeter of the site for individual use.
Polaris and water tank Deborah Barber wrestling the fire hose
In any Rx situation, the driving factor is the wind direction. Today the wind was coming out of the south to southeast; therefore, counterintuitive for me, we started our test burn on the north side of the property. The reason the fire starts downwind is for easier control; the fire will tend to stay small using the ground fuel for growth rather than the wind. This will become clearer in the description of burn unit two. The test fire is also where the burn boss can try to get a grasp on how the fire will behave for the burn. Today, the winds were light around 4 mph and because there was a fair amount of moisture in the ground, the fire burned small and controllable.
In any Rx burn situation, it is imperative to keep track of the wind speed and direction and the humidity levels. The weather must be reported to the BB every hour; this is mandated by the permit and is standard practice for these types of events. For today’s burn the weather gal was Mary Travaglini, she reported the conditions, which were pretty constant throughout the day, relative humidity between 48 and 50, with wind speed from the south at about four to five miles per hour.
The burning is done with a drip torch, a metal container with a long tube for pouring the catalytic fluid (a mixture of gasoline and kerosene) on to the ground. The flame is started by the BB, then as the fire progresses, the canister is kept lit like a torch, and the FST will walk around the perimeter igniting the brush. The FSU will follow, wetting the perimeter to encourage the fire to spread to the center of the unit. The FSU’s responsibility is very important; they must always be analyzing the fire, keeping it under control while also letting it follow its natural course.
We began the test fire at corner B, almost in line with the direction of the wind. After analyzing the behavior the BB gave everyone the go ahead to begin. The strategy for beginning the fire here was to have one crew work their way around the perimeter perpendicular to the wind direction while the other would do the same upwind. So as the fire spreads to the center of the unit, the opposing fire line would enforce the break between the unit and the surrounding forest.
The fire in Unit-1 burned as planned, running through the three-acre parcel in about three hours. All that remained was a black wasteland with the occasional puffs of smoke drifting up from fallen logs and piles of brush scattered about the interior. The next step in the process is the mop up. Here the crews will double-back, spraying down a 25+/- strip along the perimeter of the burn, drenching any persistent smoldering areas to insure nothing re-catches and spreads beyond the clearing.
After the initial burn, the burn team was instructed to go back and inspect and then mop up. Mop up is a term that refers to spraying down the perimeter of the burn area to ensure no renegade fire spreads into the surrounding forest. The fire burned through the Unit-1 in a little over 3 hours, and with the mop up we were back at the parking lot for a break and to resupply for Unit-2. Burn Unit-2 would prove to be a little more exciting. But in the world of Rx burning, boring is better.
After eating lunch and refilling the water tanks, the crew headed over to Unit-2. This unit is a little smaller than the other, the clearing being only about two acres with a thicker mat of grasses and brush. Unit-2 had more invasive trees and plants and more top soil than Unit-1. In Unit-1, we had large areas of exposed rock and no soil, in Unit-2 most of the ground had a significant layer of soil with only the occasional outcropping of serpentine rock.
The hourly weather report came in; the relative humidity had risen to 50 and the winds were still out of the south to southeast around five mph. For the pre-burn meeting, we briefly reviewed any issues that came up during the morning burn, of which there were no major issues. We backed the tanker truck right up to the burn site between points A and E. James decided we would begin the fire a little differently this time, beginning the burn at point A, upwind of the unit.
The fire started pretty quickly and spread downwind in a northern direction. The crews quickly split up, each member falling into his or her role, as if this were their principle professions. The fire team is made up of all TNC members with the exception of James the burn boss. The TNC members are had their “red card” training. To get this certification, they took the classes S-130 (Firefighting Training) and S-190 (Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior) available from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. In addition to the courses, they must pass a pack test, carrying 45 lb for 3 miles in less than 45 minutes.
The fire in Unit-2 proved to be a little more exciting than the morning burn. In the pre-burn meeting the abundant groundcover was noted and caution was expressed. As with any Rx burns, crews must heed all cautions and need to be prepared for anything. They were aware that the thicker brush and grass layer would create a hotter and longer flame. And they were prepared when the wind picked up and shifted to west. This is where things got a little interesting.
The fire was started at point A on the southwest side and traveled in a northwesterly direction, pushing the fire across much needed fuel. The flames seem to leap up, sometimes 25 feet. It was easy to see how an observer could really get the feeling of what an out-of-control forest fire could be like. However, the team stayed calm and kept control of the fire at all times.
Flames taking off in Unit-2 Flames getting bigger in Unit-2
The burn of Unit-2 took all of about 45 minutes to completely char the entire two acres. All that was left was black charred grasses and remains of bushes and trees, with patches of vegetation here and there where the fire seemed to have just skipped over.
Burn Unit-2 after the flames Deborah Landau mopping up
The burns were a success and from my inexperienced eye, I would tend to agree. These types of fires are supposed to mimic a natural wildfire burn and this it did. Burning fast and hot enough to incinerate everything in its path, laying down the seeds for the spring and summer flowers that are unique to the Serpentine ecosystem. Come next spring, the grasses will return as will the fameflower, serpentine asters, New Jersey teaberry, and perhaps even the whorled milkweed.
For more photos, see the photo section of this website. http://statelineserpentinebarrens.org/album
9/ 24 -- Work Day #1 at Pilot Preserve, Conowingo, Maryland
Run by Deborah Landau of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) of Maryland
Today’s work day consisted of creating a fire break line along the perimeter of the barrens at the Pilot Preserve in Cecil County Maryland. Pilot is managed by the TNC, 32 acres of which is under direct management of the TNC and the remaining 60 acres are privately owned and preserved. Pilot consists of two principle units, each one approximating 2.5+/- acres.
We started the day around 9:00, a very warm and muggy day, meeting at the Girl Scout camp across from the site. Eleven of us braved the heat with varying implements of mass destruction, ranging from pruning clippers to weed whackers with 6” steel blades to chain saws and my favorite, a self-propelled super lawn mower. We were on a mission to clear an eight-foot wide fire break around the perimeter of the site. Of course, the other object here is to take advantage of the help and expand the perimeter a little, cutting out bump outs of forest that have tried methodically to take back the barrens.
The burn boss and Deborah Landau of TNC had walked the units prior to our coming out. They marked the perimeter with pink survey flagging. These marked our limits for clearing, and, of course, the burn boss was very generous with his clearing. The burn boss, the person who will run the controlled burning, in this case, is James Remuzzi of Sustainable Solutions LLC. Mr. Remuzzi is a lifelong conservationist who specializes in forest conservation and management.
A fire break is an area where vegetation is cleared to minimize an escape of burning in the clearing. We approached the semi-circular area, by dividing up and working our way down each side with the hopes of meeting in the middle. Each team had two sawyers, two weed whackers, and people to pull the brush out to the middle of the clearing. We used our weapons of destruction to cut small oaks, pines, and cedars, clear green briar and grasses away from the break. This included overhanging vegetation (ladder fuels) and branches from farther in the forest. After the clearing the break, the material is raked back to the middle of the burn area. The idea is to create an area that is low on fuel and will not burn too hot or too long. The prescribed burn will begin at the fire break and work its way inwards. I am hoping to participate in a burn at the Pilot preserve, but more on the burn process later.
I started the morning running the super mower or bush hog. Just imagine cutting your grass, but your lawn is full of small saplings, green briar, and 2-3 foot shrubs and bushes. In our group, the volunteers would go out ahead of me and remove the larger trees and fallen wood, and I would come in and make the final cut down to ground level. However, my pleasure was short-lived, as a leak in the gas tank, which was patched with duct-tape earlier, began to get worse. I was told they did not need their new intern to sacrifice himself and start the fire prematurely.
My relationship with mechanical tools of destruction was once again renewed asHenry Whitesel offered me the use of his weed whacker, of which I took full advantage by attacking the green briar and small trees.
We ended the day at 2:00 pm, only about halfway completed with the first cell. This was unfortunate because I will have to miss the next work day due to prior commitments.
In caring for the Serpentine Barrens, there is not much mystery to the management of invasive species. After all, the Native Americans did it and before that, herds of buffalo and elk would do it naturally, creating isolated pockets of savannah all along the piedmont regions of the Appalachians. The difference is we have to worry about civilization as all the barrens in the Friends purview are isolated pockets surrounded by farms, roads, and houses. When the Native Americans practiced controlled burning, it was only figuratively speaking, toss in the match and walk away.
Today we cannot do that, so we need to build fire breaks, or strips surrounding the burn unit to keep the fire contained. The fire acts in two ways, controlling the invasive species (in this case, the forest and green briar) and burning the summer grasses and vegetation, allowing for a fresh crop of grasses and flowers unique to the barrens.
The Barrens begin to fill with brush as the break line is formed
The fire break formed with the super mower. Notice the pink survey flagging; we were trying to follow the path laid out by the burn boss.
Deborah from the TNC gives us the overview on how the barrens have changed over the last 50 years, before work and during lunch break!
Pilot area in 2008 (top); notice the two clearings in the forest, just north of the bend in the road and Pilot in 2009 (bottom) after the 2008 burn. (Google Images)
Map of the planned burn units (Deborah Landau TNC)
9/19 -- The Nature Conservancy Walk at Goat Hill
One of the many things that the Friends' group does is to lead hikes into the barrens. This TNC-sponsored hike was led by Mike Bertram, Research Coordinator, Friends of the State Line Serpentine Barrens.
Serpentine Barrens are unique in that they depend on catastrophic disturbance, such as fire or herds of animals walking over the terrain to survive. Native Americans made a practice of burning the barrens to keep the brush and young trees from sprouting up, to clear the view for game, and to keep watch on their enemies. It was thought when the colonists began to settle in theMarylandandPennsylvaniaarea, there were perhaps 500,000 acres of these savannah type barrens.
Unlike most evolving ecosystems, this exceptional ecosystem is doomed without the meddling of man. The natural progression of events would result in layers of topsoil forming over the rocks, and then eventually the forest and other native plants would move in and crowd out the serpentine grasses and flowers.
Mikeled the walk from a small gravel parking lot located on Red Pump Road under the power lines. Historically, over the years, the barrens of Goat Hill were mined for magnetite and chromium. In the 1960s demand for these resources dried up as larger more profitable mines were discovered in other parts of the country. In the late 1970s, an excavating company began to show interest in mining there once more, only to be stopped by the Concerned Citizens of the West Nottingham Township, a grassroots organization opposing the proposed work and any disturbance in the lands surrounding it. Their effort led to the Bureau of Forestry (DCNR) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) taking over the management of the area.
Eleven of us followed Mikedown a very gravely and rough trail that had once served logging and mining interests and now only fit for an off-road vehicle. It was not hard to notice the rugged beauty of the olive green serpentine rock under our feet as we traipsed farther into the preserved area. It was not long before we stopped and got our first lesson in identifying some unique grasses. There was the long-hairy barrens chickweed, a grass prevalent in areas of the barrens with little or no soil and unique to Goat Hill. This long grass is marked for its reddish stalks and fluffy light colored seed pod. An interesting note, as pointed out byMike, the grass incorporates C4 photosynthesis. C4 photosynthesis is slightly different from the more widespread C3 photosynthesis in that the process takes place in the inner cells of the stalk. In most plants and trees, photosynthesis takes place in the leaves. C4 also uses less water and can operate at higher heat; this is typical for plants in the desert and high tundra. A little bit farther along, we found some Serpentine Aster (aster depauperatus fern). This globally rare small flower is truly native to the barrens of southeastern Pennsylvania. In small stands ranging from a few inches to about a foot tall, these native serpentine flowers have small white star-shaped petals around a yellow center.
As we walked down to the bottom of the outcropping, we passed from the bare rock to a treed area, and we all noticed how much cooler the air was as the bare rock acted as a heat sink, much in the manner of being on a city street. But temporary relief was found as we stopped near Pine Creek, a tributary to the Octoraro Creek (which runs into the Susquehanna River). Here, we saw our next bit of exceptional flora, the purple gerardia (Agalinis purpurea). This is a truly wonderful flower, from the figwort family, found in wet moist areas around streams and lakes, a surprising contradiction to the barrens flora at the top of the ridge.
Serpentine Barrens, if left alone, will naturally revert back to forest. The first invaders, clumps of Pitch Pine, Eastern Red Cedar, and Blackjack or Post Oaks, will begin to grow. As they drop leaves, soil begins to form around the roots and the forest begins its slow creep to take over the barrens. This happens quicker in lower areas where stream and river may flood or runoff from high up will deposit organic materials. Generally, the last place this happens is on top of the ridge, where we still see remnants of the barrens kept up by Native Americans thousands of years ago.
Mikeexplained as we topped the next ridge, back into the heat of another patch of grasslands and rock, that the conservancy will typically use three techniques to manage the barrens. Beginning with what he called cut and drag, a tree is cut and dragged across the land to remove any soil and non-native plants like green briar (the predominant invasive species taking over the barrens). The next method is a prescribed burn, where an area will be set on fire in a “controlled” manner. These are usually done by experts who can keep the fire low and burning hot and, of course, under control. The last method is to use a bulldozer to scrape the soil off the land. This is generally done in areas where the forest has taken over too much, but this method is very costly and controversial. I plan, in future reports, to discuss these management methods in more detail, for they are key to keeping the ecosystem thriving.
As we left the ridge and headed for the woods, we spotted an old serpentine mine – actually a test site to check for chromium. This particular mine test site was not very impressive, no deep black hole leading an adventurer deep into the ground, hoping to find veins of gold or chromite, but open pits where miners extracted the rock by means of picks or excavating machines in later years. However, in this particular mining area we saw some great examples of serpentine rock with bands of white asbestos running through the dark green. It was clearly a great place to study the rock formation.
The serpentine rocks of eastern North America formed below the ocean floor. These were in areas along the ridges of the tectonic plates where basalt lava from the upper crust flowed. This process of melting, cooling, and mixing the gabbro and basalt rock formed a rock sequence called ophiolite. This is where the rock changes to a metamorphic rock. As the igneous rock is part of the collision, it is folded and heated under pressure of continental collision and becomes serpentinite. These ultramafic rocks (meaning from the mantle) are thought to be fragments of the ancient continent, Rhodina that formed during the Proterozoic era. As Rhodina split, an ocean floor was left along the continental ridge, and over the millennium, these ridges experienced upheaval multiple times, exposing the serpentine rock.
Serpentine rock is unique, because it comes from the earth’s mantle, has little to no calcium, and is mostly made up of magnesium. The olive green rock is usually exposed as outcroppings along ridges and on the sides of hills. These conditions make it very unfavorable for plant growth, thus, the reason for flora unique only to this ecosystem.
As we headed back and topped another ridge, Mikepointed out another warm weather grass that thrives in this setting, the prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolus heterolep). These grasses grow relatively well in the barrens, but are not unique to this ecosystem. They are not native to Pennsylvaniain this area except in the barrens, where they enjoy areas of shallow dry soil and are drought resistant, making them a target for cultivation by nurseries.
The hike ended back at the parking lot about two hours after it had started. The hike was fantastic; we learned a lot about the area and the wonderful ecosystem. Please visit my blog as I learn about how to manage the barrens. My next field visit will be September 24, this is where I will be helping out with volunteers in building a fire break, look for blog update.
The barrens with long-hairy barrens chickweed and Indian grasses. Note the sparseness of the vegetation.
Serpentine Aster, little white flowers hidden among the grasses
Purple gerardia, not a serpentine specific plant
Examples of serpentine rock; note the band of asbestos in the top picture.
Clumps of Prairie dropseed grasses