Prescribed burns planned near Gatewood in coming months

At their meeting Tuesday Pulaski Town Council heard plans for prescribed burns in the forested area north of Gatewood Reservoir over the coming months.

Brandon Hughes, Fire Management Officer for George Washington and Jefferson National Forests and Brad Wright of the Virginia Department of Forestry briefed council on plans for the burns.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, prescribed burns – also known as controlled burns – refer to the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions. The fires are used to restore health to the forest ecosystems.

After many years without fires, forest ecosystems can become unhealthy. Trees become stressed by overcrowding, flammable fuels build up and become hazardous and increase the likelihood of serious hotter fires.

The burns also minimizes the spread of pest insects and disease, provides forage for game, recycles nutrients back to the soil and promotes the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants. The burns can also help to improve the quality of fresh water in the reservoir.

Hughes said the prescribed burns will take place after the campground and picnic shelter area of Gatewood closes for the season – at the end of October. The burns will end prior to the park’s opening in mid-April.

Hughes said he is required to prepare a burn plan for the fires. The plan identifies the best conditions under which trees and other plants will burn to get the best results safely. Burn plans consider temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of vegetation and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. According to the U.S. Forest Service, prescribed fire specialists compare conditions on the ground to those outlined in the burn plans before deciding whether to burn on a given day.

Hughes said generally winds should only be in the 5 to 8 mph range and relative humidity should be at 25 to 45 percent.

The prescribed fire plan will involve the U.S. Forest Service, the Virginia Department of Forestry and Pulaski Fire Department who will assist due to some 300 acres of the land to be included in the burns being owned by the Town of Pulaski.

Wright said such a joint operation is a first for Virginia, the Forest Service and state Department of Forestry.

Hughes told council he believes when the prescribed burn project is complete, it will be an eye-opening experience for citizens to see what fire actually can do to improve the health of a forest.

Wright said an example of a prescribed burn can be found around the trail at Randolph Park. An example of a bad burn – a wildfire – can be found in the area around Draper Mountain Estates which suffered a wildfire a few years ago.