Northeast Fire Program
Northeast Region

Patuxent Research Refuge Completes Prescribed Burns in Baltimore/Washington Area

by Catherine J. Hibbard

“You hear it all the time how it can’t be done,” said Jeff Seabright of the National Park Service, referring to the difficulty of using prescribed fire near metropolitan areas. Seabright was one of several firefighters who converged at Patuxent Research Refuge to conduct two spring burns this year. The Refuge, located in Laurel, Maryland is about 10 miles south of Baltimore and 10 miles north of Washington D.C., a metroplex home to over 8 million people.

According to Refuge Biologist Holliday Obrecht, Patuxent Research Refuge had planned to burn two units for at least 4 years; a 30-acre field and 15 acres of pine/oak forest. Objectives for the field included maintaining habitat for grassland breeding birds by burning encroaching saplings and studying the effects of fire on controlling Lespedeza, a non-native invasive plant. The latter is especially appropriate for Patuxent Research Refuge, the only Refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System established to support wildlife research. Obrecht thought that fire might stimulate Lespedeza growth making it easier to subsequently treat with herbicide. Purposes of the forest burn included removing small Virginia pines and clearing the understory to restore open savanna. Obrecht also wanted to determine if fire is an effective tool to maintain the diversity of darkling beetles and rare plants in the area.

Planning for prescribed burning in the northeast is a challenge in itself, let alone planning for a burn in a suburb of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Windows of opportunities are often narrow because conditions must be just right to minimize smoke impacts to people and to achieve resource goals. Even if weather conditions are perfect, personnel and equipment may not be available. Most national wildlife refuges in the northeast, including Patuxent Research Refuge, have only a few fire-qualified employees and limited firefighting equipment so they rely on partnerships with other refuges or agencies to do burns.

Despite a snowstorm thwarting an attempt to burn in early March, Patuxent Research Refuge successfully completed both burns on separate days in late March and April. Burn Boss Steve Hubner of the Northeast Regional Fire Office coordinated a team of about 20 firefighters, hailing from four National Parks, the State of Maryland, the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, Wallkill River and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuges, and Patuxent Research Refuge. For the field burn, two Type 6 engines (150-400 gallon capacity) and a Marsh Master were on hand and drafted water from a pond adjacent to the burn. For the forest burn, a bulldozer, three engines, a prototype utility vehicle (Hydra H-1), and a water tender were on site. Firefighters used water from a 1000-gallon portable tank filled by the water tender. All involved agreed that interagency cooperation was a highlight. “We never would have pulled it off without people coming together to achieve our management goals,” said Refuge Manager Brad Knudsen.

The ample contingent allowed firefighters to both conduct the burn and monitor weather conditions for smoke impacts. For both burns Hubner assigned a field observer/smoke monitor to ensure smoke did not blow into local communities or impair visibility on the Baltimore Washington Parkway (Route 295), which was within a quarter of a mile of both burns. Firefighters were prepared to extinguish the fire if smoke became an issue, but this was not necessary. Favorable weather conditions lifted and dispersed smoke resulting in no loss of visibility on the parkway or smoke intrusion into neighboring communities. These conditions, along with advance notice to local and metropolitan media outlets, resulted in no complaints from the public.

As to how well management goals were met, biologist Obrecht said, “We won’t know for a while yet, but we will assess it.” Preliminary results are favorable. “We were very pleased,” he said when he walked through the burned field. “Many of the Bradford pear, sweet gum, and Virginia pine saplings got scorched.” Pines targeted for removal in the forest burn also appeared to have been killed. Obrecht will search the site for rare plant germination and show it to beetle expert Warren Steiner of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to see how the fire affected darkling beetles.

"The promising results of the burns, which included the first forest burn the Refuge has ever done, has Refuge Manager Knudsen looking to do more burns in the future. In addition to using prescribed fire as a tool to manage for certain types of habitat to maintain diversity on the Refuge landscape, burns on the Refuge serve another purpose. Because the Refuge is close to Washington, D.C., many dignitaries visit. Said Knudsen, “They don’t have to go far. We have examples here of research and habitat diversity. This will give them an opportunity to see what prescribed burning did. It set back succession; it caused invasive species to sprout at one time so we can spray them all at once. It promoted native grasses.”

Others are already looking at Patuxent Research Refuge as a model for doing prescribed burns in metropolitan areas. Down the road from Patuxent, the National Park Service is considering fuel reduction projects. Although only non-fire methods are planned at this time, prescribed fire may be used in the future if deemed appropriate. Seabright, a regional fire management officer for the National Capital Region of the Park Service noted that public resistance to burning increases the closer you get to metropolitan areas. Obstacles to overcome include smoke issues and public perception. “The Patuxent burns were even closer to the Baltimore Washington Parkway [than the planned Park Service burns]. This just shows people that it can be done.”

Field before
Biologist Holliday Obrecht in field before controlled burn
Credit: Catherine J.Hibbard/USFWS
Field during
Field during burn
Credit: Catherine J.Hibbard/USFWS
Field After
Holliday Obrecht in field after burn
Credit: Catherine J.Hibbard/USFWS
Savannah burn by Roger
Savanna burn
Credit: Roger Stone/USFWS
Last updated: February 27, 2013