Controlled Burns Aid New England Forests

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The endangered plants and animals found on the sand plains include Maine's only viable population of northern blazing star, a drought tolerant plant, and a robust population of the grasshopper sparrow, which is endangered in the state. Several other grasslands birds, butterflies, and insects, as well as a snake and turtle species, are also found on the sand plains.

Schuerman said periodic burning of the grasslands provides a pulse of nutrients to the drought- and fire-adapted plants, allowing them to "grow with more gusto."

"That gusto is turned into brighter flowers, more and better seeds. This means that the fire also gives the animals a boost in energy. For the seeds have more nutrients, giving the small mammals and birds a bonus," he said.

If the grasslands are not periodically burned, Schuerman said, several of the animals, particularly grasslands birds, would begin to disappear. The grasslands would be replaced by thicker bushes and trees. Left unburned, the thicker bushes and trees also serve as an explosive fire hazard.

Saving Towns

According to Simmons, a second component to the prescribed burn program in New England is to protect communities from wildfires. Many towns abut the region's ancient fire-adapted ecosystems, which are loaded with fuels thanks to more than two centuries of fire suppression. A summer drought, a little wind, and a match could be catastrophic.

"The general population is just not aware how at risk some of these towns are," Simmons said.

The restoration ecologist spends much of his time traveling to town meetings to explain the reasons for the prescribed burn program. In addition to ecological restoration, his goal, he tells them, is to avoid a repeat of the infamous fire of 1947, which burned thousands of acres and homes in southern Maine.

He tells his audiences they need to accept the fact that fire is part of the landscape and to begin the process of re-introducing it to the landscape in a safe manner. But it's a hard sell, Simmons concedes.

"People are not separating ecology from the public safety aspect," he said. "They say it's fine to protect the habitat for various birds. People can generally get their arms around that. But the danger of [wildfire] never hits until you lose a town or village. Then people wake up."

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