Fire called useful tool to improve the environment

Lyme - Fire is a useful and ancient tool for habitat management that should be employed more often to diversify the state's open spaces for different kinds of wildlife, according to one of the state's experts on controlled burning.

Richard Schenk, fire control officer with the forestry division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, described the benefits of fires on natural ecosystems as well as the dangers during a talk Sunday at the Lyme Public Hall. Attended by about 20 people, the talk was sponsored by the Lyme Land Conservation Trust and the Lyme Public Hall Association.

John Pritchard, land trust president, said the group has no specific plans for controlled burns on its properties, but organized the talk as part of its mission to educate members and the general public about a broad range of conservation subjects.

"Fire is a natural topic for us, because it's part of the natural environment," he said.

Schenk began his talk with the historic perspective. Before European settlement, native Americans regularly burned large areas to keep lands open for vegetable crops and easier hunting. From the colonial period to the early 1900s, forests were cleared for farm fields, with much of the wood turned into charcoal for iron furnaces.

With the reforestation of Connecticut over the last century, the state now lacks the grasslands and shrubby habitat that many birds and small mammals such as the threatened New England cottontail need.

"I'm planting the seed," Schenk said. "I think we should be doing more burning."

In addition to creating needed habitat, controlled burning has an added benefit for humans, he said.

"It kills ticks."

During his talk, Schenk described controlled burns done at two Waterford locations, at Mamacoke Island, owned by Connecticut College, and at Harkness State Park. At Harkness, a controlled burn last spring is helping maintain a field of little bluestem, switchgrass and other native grasses, he said. His department also helped with a recent controlled burn on property owned by the Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, he said.

Later this year, he said, DEEP will continue its efforts to create a savanna-like habitat at a 15-acre site in Nehantic State Forest in Lyme. It will stage a controlled burn to thin the hardwood forest and let light into the understory so the native grasses and shrubs will grow.

Schenk also emphasized that controlled burns must be done cautiously, with an understanding of the many hazards of smoke and wind that can cause a fire to quickly change direction and get out of control. In one town he declined to name, one burn got out of control and it ended up destroying a $300,000 firetruck.

Schenk also talked about the fire last spring at Devil's Hopyard State Park in East Haddam.

"It was a very unique situation, because it started on a cold, dry, windy night and it was climbing into an area of dead hemlock trees and embers were blowing from one tree to the next," he recalled.

As head of the DEEP crews fighting the fire, Schenk said, he decided it would be too dangerous to try to fight the fire at night. When crews returned in the morning, they stopped the fire from spreading by literally fighting fire with fire, igniting then extinguishing dead wood in a perimeter around the main fire.

Schenk said the cause of the fire, which destroyed an estimated 130 acres, is believed to have been accidental, probably the result of youths lighting a campfire or someone dropping a lit cigarette.

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