Planned Fires Help Cape Cod Forests, Wildlife

By Chris Lindahl for the Cape Cod Times

MASHPEE — As firefighters on Tuesday prepared to set part of the forest ablaze off Red Brook Road, they had to check the weather.

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Conservationists use prescribed burning to create stands of young forest, habitat that gets used by New England cottontails and many other kinds of wildlife.

The National Weather Service in Taunton ran a modeling simulation, which showed smoke from the fire would disperse over New Seabury and Nantucket Sound, based on factors such as wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. They didn’t want a repeat of one of last year’s burns when the smoke cooled above the water before sinking over Osterville, leading to more than 100 911 calls from concerned residents.

“We can’t be pummeling people with a lot of smoke,” said Anthony Davis, a fire management officer with the U.S. National Park Service.

Davis is a “fire boss” — a special kind of fire professional that deals not in putting out fires, but in setting them. Far from some backyard pyromaniac, Davis is armed with hours of training and years of expertise. On Tuesday he led a team of more than a dozen local, state and federal fire officials through a painstakingly planned prescribed burn, a forest-management technique that involves the careful setting of fires in certain areas for various ecological, agricultural or safety reasons.

In the case of the 19-acre Mashpee tract, which is made up mostly of Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge land and a small portion of the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the purpose of the controlled fire is largely to benefit the New England cottontail.

“You’re helping get the fire regime back to what it was pre-European settlement,” Davis said.

The parcel is part of the nearly 500 acres of town, state, federal and private lands that are part of the Mashpee burn prescription. Since 2013, parcels in the Mashpee Pine Barrens, the federal reserves and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe land have been burned as part of the program.

One example is just east of the tract that was the subject of Tuesday’s planned burn. The blackened, flame-kissed trunks of towering pitch pines (which have adapted to thrive in fires) stretch up from the forest floor, which is now populated with fresh shoots of scrub oak, huckleberry and blueberry — favorites of the cottontail. With the old growth cleared out by flames, the resulting ashes help new growth in the forest. The deliberate setting of fires counteracts the modern urge to extinguish blazes, completing a part of the circle of life, according to Mashpee Fire Chief Thomas Rullo.

“Ash — it’s the main thing I put in my garden,” he said.

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Scrub oak quickly resprouts following a prescribed burn to benefit New England cottontails on Cape Cod./C. Fergus

But, like so many aspects of prescribed burns, it’s a delicate balance.

“If it’s too hot and too much, you can sterilize the soil,” Rullo said.

After inspecting the piece of land burned last year, Davis noticed a potential problem: some of the oak trees were not producing leaves, indicating the burn had inadvertently boiled the trees’ sap, killing them.

After consulting a biologist, the team scaled back their initial plans and burned about 1 acre of the parcel to see if the oaks experience similar mortality. That will help the team determine whether to continue spring burns in the area or burn only in the fall, when there is less risk of killing the trees, Rullo said.

This week, the team planned to burn at the Falmouth Rod and Gun Club and Massasoit State Park in Lakeville.