‘Prescribed burn’ stimulates natural growth while reducing hazardous fuels
“We have stronger winds today. We may have shifting winds. Do not get too overcommitted or deep into the grass. Let’s plan on overcommuncating.”
And with those final precautionary warnings from Dave Robinson, Fire Management Officer for Shenandoah National Park, several dozen rangers and firefighters from Shenandoah Park, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park climbed into their firefighting gear to begin igniting Big Meadows along Skyline Drive.
Although growing up in Luray, Robinson only recently returned to Shenandoah, having spent the last 15 years as fire manager/fuels specialist at both the North and South Rims of Grand Canyon National Park, where he similarly oversaw highly coordinated “prescribed burns.”
“Fire is a tool for resource management,” Robinson explained to the Rappahannock News. “So for the Big Meadows prescribed fire project, or for meadow restoration as a whole, it’s an integration of various programs in Shenandoah National Park.”
Which isn’t to say that every year the popular grassy meadows are set ablaze — and even then the conditions have to be just right. Last year it was “too wet” to burn, recalled Shenandoah Public Information Officer Sally Hurlbert, the meadow in 2018 receiving 99 inches of moisture instead of the normal 52. In other years, the park wants there to be growth.
“We utilize a mowing treatment, and then we utilize a fire treatment, and between those two different types of treatment there’s also a year that we allow a portion of the meadow to rest and recover,” said Robinson. “But fire, that natural disturbance, stimulates growth of those native grasses. The carbon release, the nitrogen that comes from the burn. It’s a natural process.
“Mowing is nice in the fact that we’re not highly dependent upon the weather and we can do it with less scheduling. But that natural process of putting fire back into the ecosystem, that’s the focus of the prescribed burn. Stimulating the natural grasses, but also reducing the hazardous fuels to reduce the threat of a human-caused fire here near the [adjacent] Byrd Visitor Center or along Skyline Drive to improve public safety.”
With that it mind, Robinson otherwise appeared undaunted by a stiff breeze blowing across Big Meadows Thursday morning just as the burn was about to get underway under bright blue skies.
“We’re within the prescription for the prescribed fire project,” he said. “We have a stronger wind, and we look at that with other values as well, so the relative humidities, the dry-bulb temperatures [actual air temperature when shielded from radiation and moisture], we actually have cooler temperatures today than we’ve had in the past.
“Our relative humidities are a little higher than we’ve had in the past, so with that it means the fuels, the stuff in the ground that will burn, is receptive. But cooler temperatures, higher relative humidities, especially when we’re looking at burning grass, they may be a little less receptive than when it’s warmer and drier.
“But we can counteract that cooler temperature, the higher relative humidity, with a little stronger wind, so we’re looking at all of those elements in that environmental prescription to help meet our objectives, and that is allowing fire to burn through the meadow, to improve those native grasses and reduce the woody stems, the locust trees that we’re trying to remove. The other side of that is a little stronger wind will help disperse the smoke and move it away and keep the air, the viewshed, clear.”
Which it did.
Nevertheless, park rangers, vehicle emergency lights flashing, took up positions along Skyline Drive, where smoke at times reduced visibility but otherwise caused no problems. Intrigued tourists who happened upon the prescribed burn grabbed chairs both indoors and outdoors at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center to watch the smoky spectacle.
By early afternoon, the middle and southern sections of Big Meadows— which measure approximately 130 acres — were successfully burned.
Located at mile 51 of Skyline Drive, Big Meadows is a top recreational destination for Shenandoah National Park. Besides the Byrd Center, it features a nearby ranger station, rustic lodge, camp store, and camping area. Several hiking trails are also accessed from the meadows, including the Mill Prong Trail leading to Rapidan Camp, the fishing retreat of President Hoover from 1929-1933. Two years later, in 1935, President Roosevelt chose Big Meadows — since placed on the National Register of Historic Places — to dedicate the park and Skyline Drive.
Big Meadows is also in the record books for recording Virginia greatest 24-hour snowfall — 33 inches — during the 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm, which before abating dropped 42 inches of the white stuff. During the Blizzard of 1996, Big Meadows measured Virginia’s greatest one-storm snowfall accumulation of 47 inches.