Woods and Waters: Scotia Barrens burn project completed near State College

Pat McElhenny, with The Nature Conservancy, examines the effects of fire on a pitch pine tree at SGL 176. McElhenny has been the "fire boss" on all previous prescribed burns at Scotia.
Pat McElhenny, with The Nature Conservancy, examines the effects of fire on a pitch pine tree at SGL 176. McElhenny has been the "fire boss" on all previous prescribed burns at Scotia. For the CDT

Prescribed fire is successfully rejuvenating — one section at a time — the unique pitch pine-scrub oak habitat on Centre County’s State Game Lands 176.

Controlled burns were safely conducted on SGL 176 — locally referred to as the Scotia Barrens — on four different days during April and May.

According to The Nature Conservancy “burn boss” Pat McElhenny, conditions were nearly perfect on April 21, when the first burn took place. The crew, largely made up of Pennsylvania Game Commission employees, burned the 81 acres of Unit 11 in the morning and then an additional 5.5 acres in the afternoon.

The larger prescribed fire that had been planned for April 28 was cancelled by McElhenny.

“The fuels were just too dry on Unit 9 for a safe burn,” McElhenny said. “The probability of ignition number was just too high - increasing the chance that fire could cross a fire-break.” A smaller “greener” area near the shooting range was burned instead.

“Just the opposite occurred on the morning of May 5 — it was too damp for a burn,” noted Ben Jones, chief of Habitat and Planning for the PGC. “However, we were able to burn some additional acreage of Unit 12 along the Scotia Range Road after things dried out in the afternoon.

“That set the stage for the biggest burn of the spring the following day. All of Units 9 and 10 - 204 acres - were burned on May 6,” Jones said. “We are finished with SGL 176 for this spring, and we are very happy with what has been accomplished. There is still the possibility that we will have a late summer burn on parts of Units 12 and 13, but for now, the Game Commission is moving its efforts to areas in the more-northern counties.”

This writer was privileged to be invited to experience and photograph the entire controlled burn process on April 21. I was impressed with the planning and logistics of the entire operation. I will share what I observed.

As you might guess, a successful burn is a lot more than lighting a match. It takes planning and precise implementation — nothing is rushed. The seasoned workers were coming off of successful burns on SGL 75, in Lycoming County, the previous week. However, many additional PGC employees were on site for training. All wore yellow and green fire-retardant suits and carried safety equipment in their backpacks.

The morning started off with the crew’s orientation to the Scotia burn plan. Workers received radios and tested them, checked their equipment, and studied the burn plans and maps that were supplied. Contingency Squad Leader Gary Glick monitored the weather and made important burn calculations.

Cliff Guindon, Northcentral Land Management Supervisor, began the burn briefing at 9 a.m. Guindon is in training to become a burn boss under the tutelage of McElhenny.

“We have three goals for the day. Number one is always the safety of our personnel and the public. Number two is habitat — to perpetuate and restore the pitch pine/scrub oak barrens forest habitat, and we want a top kill of 60 to 90 percent of invasive shrubs, scrub oak, red maple and birch seedlings and saplings,” Guindon outlined. “Our third goal is training, and we have a lot of extra people here from the northcentral region for just that reason.”

Squad assignments were reviewed and squad leaders were introduced to their squad members. Special attention was given to the maps in the burn plan so that all participants became familiarized with their specific roles. Lettered orange cones had already been placed in the fire breaks around the perimeter of the planned 81-acre burn so that all personnel could use them as references. Safety was stressed at every step along the way.

The weather forecast and 9 a.m. conditions — including humidity, temperature, wind speed and wind direction — were shared and their implications discussed with all of the workers. Conditions favorable to producing a fire hot enough to control the invasive species were hoped for, but not too hot for the normally fire-resistant pitch pines.

Burn boss McElhenny directed that a small test burn be initiated near point A on the perimeter at 10:25 a.m. The fire was ignited and spread with a drip torch containing a 50-50 mixture of diesel fuel and gasoline.

The small spot of orange and yellow slowly grew as McElhenny studied the characteristics of the fire. He cautiously advised that the fire be expanded with the drip torch. Squad 1 and 2 members put out any fire that encroached on the firebreak. The test burn expanded to about a quarter acre in a triangle of land at the northeastern edge of the scheduled burn.

Fearing that the fire might get too hot near the pitch pines, McElhenny had igniters set smaller fires next to each pine.

At 10:40, a satisfied McElhenny ordered over his radio, “Move to burn,” and gave specific directions to expand the fire along the western and northern edges. PGC land manager Colleen Shannon used her lit drip torch to spread the fire along the northern fire break.

At 11 a. m., McElhenny directed that eastern and northern crews move faster - spreading the fire along the perimeters. By 11:24, the northern crew had extended the fire to point F at the northwestern corner and awaited the order to move up slope and south along the southwestern edge of the burn. The other squad had reached point B and moved towards corner C. Smoke billowed from the interior as flames reached for the sky.

The line crew used “flappers” — rubber mud flaps at the end of 6-foot poles — to put out the fire when it attempted to cross a firebreak. Other crews riding in ATV mini-tankers doused the more difficult spots with water.

Make no mistake — setting and controlling these prescribed burns proved to be a dirty, hot and dangerous job. Flames shot five to ten feet in the air and occasionally up to 20 feet high. Smoke blew mainly to the east, so the crew on that side of the burn experienced the worst conditions. However, the wind would shift at times, and then the smoke would envelope other workers. The temperatures experienced on the perimeter were intense — even when up-wind of the fire.

By noon, the crews were well on their way to setting all of the edge fires that help to protect the perimeter and keep fire from jumping to adjacent habitat. A relatively large area burned safely in the middle.

Although a noticeable amount of smoke reached State College — three miles to the east — motorists were not hindered by decreased visibility. Aided by conducive weather, the agency’s planning and careful execution paid off as the 81-acre burn on SGL 176 proceeded without a hitch.

Watching flames shoot into the air, feeling the heat and surveying the charred earth that was left in the aftermath of the fire would make it difficult for the inexperienced eye to see any good in this destructive process. However, immediately adjacent to the blackened burn Unit 11, was Unit 7a, which was burned last spring. There, I saw four to six-foot tall aspen shoots, scrub oak and blackberries giving witness to the habitat rejuvenation made possible by a successful prescribed burn.