Tag Archives: Charles Smith

Controlled Burning as a Management Tool for Fairfax County Parkland

One of the characteristics of human culture is our control and use of fire. But even though it is an essential tool, unplanned fires can take human lives and damage property; so fire suppression has been a common practice for over 100 years in the United States.

Although most people don’t realize it, almost every ecosystem in North America is fire adapted – it has species and processes that rely on periodic fire to maintain their health. This is true of forests as well as fields.

The Fairfax County Park Authority began using fire in 1997 to manage meadows. These grass-dominant systems flourish if burned as regularly as every one to three years.

Controlled (prescribed) burning is a common management practice throughout Virginia. As stated by the Virginia Department of Forestry in Virginia’s Smoke Management Guidelines, “The use of prescribed fire as a resource management tool has long been regarded as indispensable.” The Virginia Department of Forestry, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Department of Conservation and Recreation, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, etc. – in short, almost every entity that owns and manages natural areas in the state – all conduct prescribed burns annually in forest and field environments. According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, over eight million acres each year are managed using prescribed burns in the southern United States alone. Burning is considered a standard, highly-effective maintenance practice.

Most eastern ecosystems evolved with fire as an integral part of their lifecycles. In meadows, fire removes accumulated plant debris, heats the seed-bank in the soil, and exposes soil to sunlight.  These actions allow native plant seeds to come in contact with the soil, make nutrients available to the plants, remove old material that inhibits new growth, and promote and allow new plants to sprout. Fire also helps to suppress many invasive, non-native plants (e.g., tall fescue) that did not evolve with fire as part of their lifecycles. The result is a healthier plant community that supports a greater diversity of plants, animals and other organisms. No other maintenance method can provide the habitat benefits that fire does in meadow systems.

Given the fact that meadows are the fastest disappearing habitat type inFairfax County, preservation of the few remaining large meadow complexes through proactive means should be a priority. Burning is considered the best way to manage meadows for the health of the system and to prevent future fires by eliminating fuel that cannot be properly removed by mowing.

The successful burns at Riverbend Park in 1997 and Ellanor Lawrence Park in 1999 demonstrated that fire can be used safely in Fairfax County without adverse effects on human property or activities. In both of those cases, well-planned fires were conducted in partnership with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the Virginia Department of Forestry in small meadows in relatively close proximity to homes and public roads. The fires not only were accomplished without complication, but there were no complaints from neighbors and the public who responded positively to educational materials and programs which discussed the controlled burns.

The Park Authority formalized its prescribed burn program in 2006. The controlled fires support state rare species that rely on meadow habitats and a great diversity of wildlife including grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadow voles, black racer snakes, red foxes, owls and northern harriers. Each year fields ranging in size from a few acres up to 40 acres are burned at multiple parks. The most recent burns occurred in February and March 2012 at Laurel Hill Park in Lorton, Elklick Preserve west of Centreville, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Centreville.

Written by Charles Smith, manager, Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch