The Pine Barrens Will Burn

Freedom — September 9, 2006 — Fifteen acres of a rare habitat will burn later this month, as conservation workers use fire to preserve the unique Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve.

These latest burns took The Nature Conservancy three years to plan. The controlled fires will focus on two different parcels: ten acres in Madison near the West Branch River, and five acres in Freedom. Both parcels are off of Ossipee Lake Road, and are surrounded largely by other preservation land. The nearest homes are one-half mile from the edge of these barrens.

Fire is crucial to maintaining the barrens’ globally rare habitat, according to Jeff Lougee, manager of the Nature Conservancy’s Mount Washington Valley Program.

“In a pine barrens, a fire is like a flood,” said Lougee in a past interview. “Ribbons of small wildfires create patchworks of habitats, preserving the barrens’ unique qualities.” The 2,500-acre Ossipee Pine Barrens sits where the four corners of Ossipee, Madison, Freedom and Tamworth meet, just off the Route 16/Route 41 junction.

While sporadic wildfires maintained the barrens’ make-up in the past, untamed fires are too great a hazard to the quickly developing area. Sudden fires are squelched as soon as possible by fire departments, and the barrens become drier, more flammable and more dangerous.

“(These burns) benefit not only the habitat and its unique flora and fauna, but also families and businesses in the neighboring communities by reducing fuel loads that have built up here over the decades,” explained Lougee.

Lougee added that the last Ossipee Pine Barrens fire was in 1957. That year, over 3,000 acres in Madison and Freedom burned. The last, fire-free half-century has let flammable species (white pine and some hardwoods, for example) to gain a foothold. Trees unique to the barrens, like hearty scrub oak and white pitch pine, have decreased in number.

The Nature Conservancy will hold two burns, one for each parcel. While the controlled fires are expected to fall between September 5th and 29th, the organization will schedule the exact date of each burn just 24 hours before flames are dropped onto the dry leaf litter, dead branches and limbs. Weather conditions have to be perfect to control the fire properly.

At least 20 workers are needed to supervise the fire. The principle crew will be Nature Conservancy staffers. White Mountain National Forest and state workers will participate too, as will some local fire departments.

Using “drip torches” — the tool appears to ‘drip’ flames from a metal tube — conservancy staffers plan to drop flames at the dry, fuel-heavy downwind corner of the parcels and back them into the wind.

Controlled burns are critical to the barrens’ survival, according to Lougee, and part of the conservancy’s long-term goal of restoration and preservation. The group has spent about $3.8 million in buying up parts of the Ossipee Pine Barrens. In the last 20 years, it has acquired nearly 2,000 acres; and in just the last nine months, the organization has purchased over 230 acres.

Conservancy members have described their goal for the barrens as three-pronged: protection, safeguarding a large aquifer below the barrens and ensuring public access to the land.

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