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Fewer Forest Fires Mean Fewer Habitats

Wildfires out West and in New Hampshire have been making headlines this spring and summer. Wildfires have burned 177 acres in the Granite State this year, damaging twelve buildings and injuring three people.

But when there aren’t any fires it can also lead to problems. Now some organizations have to set fires on purpose, to preserve a vanishing habitat.

If you want to get an idea what some parts of New Hampshire used to look like, you’ve got to find a spot where people don’t live. Like, alongside an airport runway.

It’s kind of a grassy and bushy terrain that’s dense with low-bush blueberries, and pocked with scrub oaks and other shrubs, and these “Pine Barrens” are a habitat that depend on fire to exist. So, it’s the perfect spot for firefighters cadets, like David Tomasso, to learn how to fight wildfires, as they did this past May.

Tomasso: There was actually a fire here that got out of control, went a little farther than they expected, I don’t know if you heard about that [SEB: Are you kind of hoping that’s going to happen today?] [laughter] Yeah I’m kind of hoping that’ll happen today, we’ll see.

They rake a three foot swath of ground, leaving it bare of sticks and leaves…

Unnamed Fireman: a small break like this in the fuel will stop a fire that’s burning on the surface.

…and then light it up.

A line of cadets with back-pack water sprayers keep the six inch high flames firmly under control.

Unnamed Fireman: Step and Sweep Go! Go! Go!

This is what’s called a prescribed burn, and Forest Rangers estimate that between one hundred and four hundred acres a year are burned this way in New Hampshire. Before land was developed in the state large fires used to sweep through regularly.

Native Americans used to set fires to clear underbrush and create good hunting grounds. And according to Forest Ranger Bryan Nowell in the first half of the 1900s when logging operations were in full swing, fires used to be huge.

Nowell: Oh hundreds to thousands of acres.

Think about this: this spring’s “big fire” that made headlines? It burned only 86 acres.

Now, fires just don’t spread as far. Roads criss-cross the forests, serving as fire breaks, there are more, better trained fire fighters, and simply more people watching for smoke. Nowell says now the average wildfire in New Hampshire burns around a half acre.

That’s great news if you want to live in a house surrounded by trees. But there are downsides.

Holman: So now we’re trying to knock down the scrub oak for many years, so now we’re trying to knock down some of the scrub oak and create grassy areas to put Lupin in the future.

Back alongside the airport runway, Fish and Game’s Heidi Holman says the prescribed burns help train firefighters.

And they also make it possible for lupine to grow, which the endangered state butterfly, the Karner Blue, needs to survive.

Holman: This is the lupine, right here. Evans-Brown: and that’s the only thing… Holman that’s the only thing that the Karner Blue eats.

So preserving the state butterfly means protecting and creating habitat for this delicate plant.

A couple of months after the burn took place, Holman comes back to the scene and it’s hard to tell that it ever occurred. The blueberries and chokeberry bushes are already six inches high, full and green; the grass and lupine Holman hoped for haven’t really taken hold.

But there are some successful patches; Holman shows me a spot where a clump of grass has sprouted and beat back the brush a bit.

Holman: Little blue stem is a clump grass, it’s not like the grass in your yard, and so it actually leaves patches of exposed soil, and that’s the condition that the lupine needs to germinate.

At last count, there were only about 2,600 Karner Blues left in New Hampshire.

And as the forests continue to grow in and homogenize, other species that depend on a habitat that fires used to foster, could find themselves squeezed out.

But of course, fires are dangerous, and no one wants to see homes, or worse, lives lost in forest fires.

So for the time being, these prescribed, and carefully controlled burns may be the best option to preserve a diverse landscape – one where animals like the Karner Blue, can survive.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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