There was smoke in the sky over Colchester Friday, but it was no accident. How a carefully planned burn will help a rare species of trees in Vermont.
The controlled burn is actually a key part of the Oak-Pine Sandplain restoration project which has been ongoing at Camp Johnson for the past 20 years. It is the last and largest ecosystem of its kind left in the state. At the heart of this forest community is the Pitch Pine tree; a tree that needs a hot fire to help release the seeds from the cones so they can regenerate.
Reporter Judy Simpson; Are you destroying the trees to get the seeds to be released?
Maj. Jacob Roy-Vermont Army National Guard: No, as a matter of fact, no. We are actually not burning the tree at all, we are burning all the ground around it and the pine cones are actually on the ground and that is how it actually regenerates.
The area was carefully prepared, some big trees logged out, areas around the pines were cleared and watered to prevent the trees from catching on fire. The goal is to just burn what is called the duff, leaf litter and small twigs and, of course, pine cones.
"Fires are needed to clear out the shade tolerant species that make it too dark for a lot of the species that are in danger and need open light kind of environment," explained Peter Hope, a biology professor at St. Michael's College.
Despite all the planning-- an unexpected event: two mountain bikers suddenly appeared in the burn zone, despite the fact the land is posted with no trespassing signs. They were escorted off the property.
Then-- carefully-- the first fire was set. The 15-acre site was divided into six different burn areas that were burned one at a time.
This burn has been two years in the planning. Every detail of the burn was carefully orchestrated.
"The crew we have here today, we have been doing this for a number of years. We do control burns every year, on average between 8 and 1,000 acres a year. All the people have gone through training, we do wildfire training every year," Roy said.
It's up to the burn boss to decide when this fire is fully contained and has no chance of spreading. Then it will be time to move on to the next area and set that on fire.
The ground cover burn was a success, blackened down to the earth. The last time there was a prescribed burn done for the project was in 1998. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the Vermont Army National Guard with help from the St. Michael's College Biology Department will compare data, to decide what the next move will be for this ecological preservation project.
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