BRUNSWICK — Slowly but surely, a portion of Brunswick’s Capt. William A. Fitzgerald Preserve off Old Bath Road went up in flames Thursday, Nov. 5.
Firefighters from the town Fire Department, the Maine Forest Service and volunteers from fire departments around the state set fire to the dry grasses on the preserve’s perimeter around 11 a.m., and worked the burn across the tree-studded sand plain for about two hours.
As the firefighters kept the fire moving across the strip of grass, brush and pine trees, they left a trail of black, smoldering earth.
But come back in six months, according to Amanda Bunker, head of the town’s conservation commission, and the habitat will be regenerated.
What was dry grassland in the fall will be “invigorated” with low-bush blueberries in the spring, and the pitch pines, a rare tree species in Maine, will be “sprouting right out all over the place,” she said.
Although it may seem paradoxical, fire is increasingly seen across the country as an important tool for habitat conservation and wildfire prevention; last week’s fire in Brunswick is just a part of a growing management strategy nationwide.
The Maine Natural Areas Program lists the small, blue stem-blueberry sandplain grassland at the Fitzgerald Preserve as “critically imperiled” habitat.
According to the site’s environmental impact statement, done as part of the property transfer to the town from the U.S. Navy, which maintained a transmitter facility on the property, 22 species of birds are known to nest at the preserve, including songbirds such as pine and prairie warblers.
There are also pitch pines, an especially rare species of pine in the Pine Tree State.
“There are not a whole lot of those left in Maine,” Kent Nelson, a fire prevention specialist at the Maine Forest Service, said. “They’re important to a lot of wildlife,” and, he added, they’re “fire dependent.”
Pointing to a cone on a nearby pitch pine, Nelson explained that its seeds are locked inside with an oily residue. They actually need heat, intense heat, “to open up and disperse the seeds,” he said.
Without fire, this habitat is in danger of being lost, he said. Walking through the dry grasses, he pointed out bunches of gray birch beginning to pop up.
“If we didn’t (conduct burns) … this area would just fill up with gray birch”and other trees like it, turning the open space into forest, he said. “Fire is a tool to maintain this rare ecosystem.”
Other species, like blueberry, also depend on the rejuvenating effects of fire, and would be outgrown if not allowed periodic burning.
Bunker said the Fitzgerald Preserve is a popular blueberry picking spot for many Brunswick residents. She said Monday that not only do neighbors and visitors come to the preserve to pick the berries, deer and songbirds also frequent the spot to dine on Maine’s iconic fruit.
But grasslands like this are susceptible to forest encroachment; a fact sheet from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife notes that historically, coastal sandplain grasslands were kept open by salt spray, or controlled burns by Native Americans, and then European farmers.
The town has a $5,400 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund to manage the rare habitat at the Fitzgerald Preserve, including strategies like prescribed burning, according to Parks and Recreation Director Tom Farrell.
Nelson stressed that a second important aspect to prescribed burning is future fire prevention.
Managing a burn results in a lot of “hazardous fuel reduction,” that could otherwise contribute to a major blaze in an uncontrolled setting.
“Wherever there’s people, there’s fires,” Nelson said, noting that 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans: a tossed cigarette butt, or an unwatched campfire can send whole acres up in smoke.
A wildfire in the dry build-up of the Fitzgerald preserve could potentially spread out to the surrounding homes, said Nelson, causing a real emergency.
Thursday was not only a way to restore habitat and reduce the fuel load, but also training for an actual wildfire, he said.
According to Nelson, Maine averages about 500 wildfires per year, which is less than in other regions of the country such as the West and the South. But, he warned, that doesn’t mean wildfire is not a significant hazard here.
In 1947, after a particularly severe drought, more than 200,000 acres burned in Maine, and it took firefighters around the state two weeks to contain them.
Data from the Maine Forest Service shows that from 2002-2014, Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties averaged more than 19 wildfires a year, with an average burn of about 13 acres. Doing controlled burns, Nelson said, trains area firefighters how to work in the event of a real wildfire.
Watching the Brunswick and state firefighters work the flames last week, Nelson took a minute to reflect on an iconic figure in American forest fires, Smokey the Bear.
“Smokey’s been one of the most successful PR campaigns ever,” he said. “But the problem … is Smokey’s done almost too good a job. He taught people all fire is bad.”
But as burning at the Fitzgerald Preserve shows, that’s not always true, Nelson said. Many habitats and species need fire to survive, and preventing fire across all habitats can actually be detrimental.
Prescribed burning, which, he said, has been “really been catching on” over the last 20 years, represents “a whole shift in the philosophy about burning.”
But in the words of Fire Chief Ken Brillant, a successful burn depends on Mother Nature’s cooperation.
Although the Fitzgerald property had been slated for a prescribed burn for months, final confirmation of the actual day the site would be burned came the week of the burn.
The weather had to be just right: winds and relative humidity had to be low, with temperature around 60 degrees.
Even on the morning of Nov. 5, Nelson, of the Maine Forest Service, took constant readings on site and checked the National Weather Service forecast to make sure that everything was within the prescription conditions.
MSF Ranger Aliesha Black led a briefing and, after another reading from Nelson, declared that conditions were good and they were ready to go. The Brunswick and state pumpers drove out to the perimeter of the square, 66-acre property.
The plan was to carefully burn lines along the two perimeters, and then burn the middle of the “triangle.”
Firefighters lit the grass with flaming drip torches and slowly worked it northward along the property line.
A light wind blew the smoke in their faces and kept the flames slowly and naturally moving north, a line of firefighters always in front of it, adding to the flames with their torches when the fire began to die out.
The flames sent ash spiralling into the air and, when they hit pine trees, “torched them” in mini-infernos as the sap exploded. The two pumpers on either side of the burn line were quick to put the flaming trees out.
But around noon, clouds began to move in. Nelson’s humidity readings started going up, and firefighters noticed the pace of the fire significantly slowing as it approached the preserve’s northern boundary.
With temperatures dropping and humidity rising, and the clouds showing no signs of clearing, the team decided to call off the burn. They ate lunch while watching the last flames burn down, having only burned about five acres of the planned 33.
Depending on how early the snow melts this spring, firefighters could be back out in April to finish the job, Brillant said Monday.
“I’ve seen us have no snow on the ground and people mowing their lawns in April,” he said.
A Brunswick firefighter extinguishes a flaming tree during a controlled burn at the Capt. William A. Fitzgerald preserve on Nov. 5.
Maine Forest Service Ranger Aliesha Black leads a briefing on the prescribed burn in Brunswick Nov. 5.A firefighter watches the burn from his truck.